A student just finished “Mark of the Plague,” the second in Kevin Sands’ Blackthorn Key series. What a winner! As in the first book, Christopher, an apothecary’s apprentice, gets caught up in mystery and death, with self-sacrificing best friend, Tom. Christopher also renews a casual relationship with Sally, another former orphan from Cripplegate.
The year is 1665, the city is London, and the plague death toll is already 30,551. The wealthy folks of London have fled and the remaining population lives mostly indoors, in dread of contracting “the sickness.” Christopher is struggling to make ends meet after the death of Master Benedict and reverts to his usual love of pyrotechnics. When an old friend, Isaac, gives them a paltry sum for shopping, he also describes a prophet who’s come to London, some extraordinary figure who can predict the course of the plague. Isaac also shocks them by revealing that Master Benedict has left Christopher a hidden treasure, one that must be solved by following impossibly cryptic clues. The boys head to the market, eventually rescuing Sally from ruffians on the streets, at least temporarily. While at the Exchange, they are amazed by an apothecary, Galen, who claims to have a free plague cure. From that point on, the three young friends find themselves in serious danger from all sides.
“Mark of the Plague” is an excellent mystery for middle schoolers and up, with complex characters and a battle against evil machinations and a devastating illness. There are a number of significant themes in the book, drawn against a backdrop of bizarre plague remedies, minds overwhelmed by grief, and cruel greed. The author faithfully represents this time of despair while leading his main characters through life-and-death struggles and into a newfound freedom. Students will marvel at the complexity of the plot, which is equally likely to stump adult readers. And the ending? Even more remarkable than the previous book.
I highly recommend “Mark of the Plague” and await the third in The Blackthorn series, “The Assassin’s Curse.”