Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Review: The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

Potions, puzzles and the occasional explosion are all in a day's work for young apothecary Christopher Rowe. Murder is another matter.

It's a dangerous time to be the apprentice of Benedict Blackthorn. A wave of mysterious murders has sent shockwaves through London, and soon Christopher finds himself on the run. His only allies are his best friend, Tom, courageous Molly, and a loyal feathered friend, Bridget. His only clues are a coded message about his master's most dangerous project, and a cryptic warning - 'Tell no one!'

The race is on for Christopher: crack the code and uncover its secret, or become the next victim . . .

Back before, and in the early days of, this blog I enjoyed reading a fair amount of adult historical mystery/thriller fiction. With the Tudor, Civil War and Restoration periods being of particular interest to me I loved CJ Sansom's Shardlake series, S.J. Parris' Giordano Bruno books, James Forrester's Clarenceaux trilogy and Susanna Gregory's Thomas Cahloner series. Sadly, these days I have a lot less time for adult books, but that does mean that when a historical mystery thriller for younger readers arrives in the post it can suddenly find itself promoted straight to the top of my TBR pile. The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands is one such book.

It is thoroughly refreshing to read a straight-up historical mystery story for middle grade readers, that does not have any kind of fantasy element to it. There is no magic, no dragons (or other fantasy creatures), no element of the supernatural, and the book is all the better for it. Although a fan of the period in which it is set, I am certainly no expert so would be unlikely to spot any historical inaccuracies. However, whether accurate or not (and I have a feeling that author Kevin Sands has been very thorough with his research), the setting of Restoration London, and its sights, sounds and smells, rang very true in my mind as I raced through the brilliant story. 

The Blackthorn Key is set in 1665, five years after the restoration of the monarchy in England, and in a period where there is still a great deal of mistrust. People have to be careful what they say for fear that a neighbour or even a family member might report them for treason. It is an era rife with political machinations and intrigue that lends itself perfectly as the setting for a historical mystery story. It is also an era when the role of the apothecary enjoyed a higher status in the eyes of the people, and they were very much the medical practitioners of choice for many. Some of these were probably little more than quacks and conmen, but many considered themselves serious scientists and healers, striving to make leaps forward in medical science.

Christopher Rowe, the hero of The Blackthorn Key, is apprenticed to one such apothecary. His master, Benedict Blackthorn, is kind and generous, traits that were rarely shown by a master to his apprentice in those times. This is all the more fortunate for Christopher, who is an overly inquisitive and adventurous boy - two personality traits that do necessarily mix well when surrounded by chemicals that can be mixed together to create gunpowder and other destructive materials. However, when it appears that some kind of mysterious cult is killing off local apothecaries it is exactly these kind of traits that come in useful, and as the violence comes even closer to home Christopher finds himself tasked with solving a mystery that involves cracking codes, and hunting down the secret to a destructive material that could completely change the balance of power, not just in England but potentially across the whole of Europe.

Christopher is a fabulous character that all readers, young or old, will warm to immediately. The opening chapter, in which we are introduced to Christopher, is one of the best I have read for some time - it tells us everything we need to know about his personality, his relationship with his master and the work they do, and his best friend Tom, in a manner that is exciting and very funny. Its lightness of tone makes the moments darkness and sorrow that follow later in the story all the more heart wrenching, and the story all the more thrilling.

2015 is proving to be yet another golden year for outstanding middle grade fiction, and The Blackthorn Key is another of my favourite books of the year so far. The Blackthorn Key is perfect for lovers of mystery thrillers, and young readers will find the London of 1665 brought completely alive for them as they race through its back streets and alleyways with Christopher. This book was easily as thrilling, fascinating and well written as Sansom's Matthew Shardlake books, and I am overjoyed to discover that it is the first in a planned trilogy. Please can we have more mystery thrillers like this for middle grade and YA readers!

The Blackthorn Key is due to be published at the beginning of September by Puffin in the UK and by Simon and Schuster in the USA. My thanks go to those lovely people at Puffin/Penguin Random House for sending me a copy to review.

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