YA: The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

Review published on July 8, 2018.

I came across this book while searching for an adventure/treasure seeking story and I must say that it really ticked all of the boxes! The Blackthorn Key really is a meandering maze filled with danger.

It is 1665, and we are introduced to apothecary apprentice, Christopher Rowe, a boy of 14 years old, who learns of a mysterious cult that is preying on other apothecaries. With this dangerous threat looming closer all the time, poor Christopher soon finds himself hunted and in a race against time to solve the puzzle given to him by his master, Benedict Blackthorn, along with a message, “Tell no one what I have given you”.

As a protagonist, Christopher presents as an ordinary 14 year old and he is three-dimensional. Coming from wretched conditions at an orphanage, Christopher Rowe is apprenticed to a very kind yet absent-minded Master Apothecary, Benedict Blackthorn. Relieved at his fortunate turn in circumstance, particularly as he was expecting a life of beatings and drudgery, he is quite content with his lot. He enjoys learning to create powerful medicines, poisons and potions, and doesn’t seem to mind his chores (cleaning the pigeon faeces from their cage – for its alchemical properties) or the fact that he sleeps under the counter of the shop. He lives with relative freedom, not fearful of his master and, like a lot of teenagers, he likes to dabble with danger. Indeed, at one point he almost blows up the shop and ruins a prized stuffed bear, much to his master’s mild vexation.

As time passes, he notices a massive change in his master’s behaviour, from being very preoccupied to overly aggressive. Soon after, Christopher finds out that his master has been drawn into a calamitous affair, which consequently wreaks havoc on Christopher’s life, almost bringing it to ruin. Nevertheless, Christopher is such a confident and intelligent lad, albeit at times a bit pig-headed and reckless, and these traits ultimately serve him well. With the help of his loyal friend, and aspiring soldier, Tom Bailey, he is able to follow the mystery – with all of its “Secrets under secrets. Codes inside codes. Traps within traps.” – through to the end.

The antagonists are suitably mean, tough and sometimes loutish. One being particularly wicked but also displaying a softer side with his sincere gratitude at the outcome of a situation; something you wouldn’t normally associate with a villain. With all of this in mind, Sands’ characters seem very believable and certainly memorable!

You really get the impression that Sands has put a lot of thought into this debut and the research into the time setting is impeccable, which also helped to serve as passive learning experience! For someone like me, who has a basic understanding (GCSE level) of history, I found this story’s historical perspective incredibly interesting, especially as it was interspersed so fluently within the narrative, and I came away from the book with new knowledge about living conditions and general life in the 17th century. It was good to read about another time and for it to seem so real and natural.

I would recommend this series to any avid fan of treasure hunts, from young adults to ‘young at heart’ adults. I will definitely be reading the other books in the Blackthorn series, Mark of the Plague, The Assassins Curse and Call of the Wraith, which is due to be published in September.

Jo Leddington 5/5

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands
Puffin 9780141360645 pbk Sep 2015

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