* “Call of the Wraith”

Kevin Sands has created another winner in his Blackthorn Key series. “Call of the Wraith” is his fourth mystery featuring Christopher Rowe, apothecary apprentice living in the 1600s. Christopher is shipwrecked in Devonshire and suffering from amnesia. While Christopher is searching for healing, his loyal friends, Tom and Sally, are hunting for him across the wintry English countryside. Locals believe a phantom is kidnapping young children and the three friends end up entangled in this deadly scheme.

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Call of the Wraith” does not disappoint. The characters remain fascinating and the plot is amazingly complex. Readers are given a fascinating glimpse into an era of witch trials and piracy. Christopher is scared and hampered by his amnesia but still manages to use his love of explosives to full effect! Themes of courage, loyalty, and prejudice are well worth exploring through this book. It’s also a great way to introduce some Latin to your middle schoolers’ vocabulary!

* The Assassin’s Curse

The Assassin’s Curse,” the third book of the Blackthorn Key series by Kevin Sands, is another winner!  Christopher Rowe, apothecary apprentice, has been drawn into a complex and dangerous mission.  His friends, Tom and Sally, accompany him to the king’s chambers in England and onward to the Louvre in France.  Christopher’s mission?  Solving a centuries-old curse on the French throne.  This Blackthorn Key book will continue to delight middle school readers (and adults!) with its twists and turns, wild antics, and unusual cyphers.

The Assassin's Curse

From the outset, Christopher and his accomplices battle an unknown assassin, a man of great strength and cunning.  Christopher relies heavily upon his poignant memories of Master Benedict for strength and insight in a race to save the entire royal family of France.  Kevin Sands weaves a complex plot through the streets of Paris, its nasty cemetery of rotting bodies, and the bizarre adoration of Louis XIV.  Yes, we get to watch the Sun King as he awakens and eats breakfast.  Yikes!  And yes, there are deaths in this book (although not as many as in Mark of the Plague!).

With so much to enjoy, I especially appreciated Master Benedict’s legacy of love for Christopher, the resolution that Sally finds in Paris, and the delightfully complex clues which lead our valiant threesome into a fight for their lives.  The Assassin’s Curse is played out on a vast scale but still highlights Tom’s loyalty, Christopher’s sharp mind, and the dark humor which will have you laughing out loud.  The ending is intense and the outcome seems dire.  It’s a masterpiece of mystery, of a battle between good and evil.  To cap it off, the author leaves us hanging….  There MUST be a fourth in this series!

 

*** I only review books which I can highly recommend.  I read a lot of 3 -and 4-star books, but it’s the 5-star winners which make it to my blog. ***

* Mark of the Plague

mark of the plague

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.”  

* The Blackthorn Key

The Blackthorn Key

Written by Kevin Sands, The Blackthorn Key is a thrilling mystery for older kids, set in London in the 1600s.  Christopher Rowe is the main character, a 14 year-old orphan who has been apprenticed to an apothecary.  His master, Benedict Blackthorn, treats Christopher with uncommon kindness and respect while teaching him the skills to become an apothecary in his own right.  Ultimately, Christopher and his friend, Tom, find themselves in a desperate battle against the Cult of the Archangel, which has been systematically murdering apothecaries in London.  The mystery is enhanced by the use of clever ciphers, secret dungeons, and unusual medicinal remedies.  And which of the realistic characters can the boys trust?  Will Christopher decode the clues within clues in time to save himself and others?

I used this book as a read aloud and would not suggest it for kids below middle school due to the graphic violence, which I filtered out.  Axes and swords make for messy battles, along with a brief torture scene using acid.  Kids will love Christopher’s penchant for blowing things up; the tender relationship between him and his master/father figure is a bit of a tear-jerker.  Kevin Sands accurately portrays the era, with its dreadful sanitation, political intrigues, and abuses of power.  We are transported to a time when people used poop on sores and drank poppy tea as a pain reliever.  There are a few anachronistic references, primarily verbal expressions, but this book could easily spark a study of British history, ciphers, and medicine.  And explosives!

The Blackthorn Key is a 5-star read, even for adults.  I’ve already started the sequel, Mark of the Plague, which is another winner!