“Tell no one what I’ve given you.”
Until he got that cryptic warning, Christopher Rowe was happy, learning how to solve complex codes and puzzles and creating powerful medicines, potions, and weapons as an apprentice to Master Benedict Blackthorn—with maybe an explosion or two along the way.
But when a mysterious cult begins to prey on London’s apothecaries, the trail of murders grows closer and closer to Blackthorn’s shop. With time running out, Christopher must use every skill he’s learned to discover the key to a terrible secret with the power to tear the world apart.
I have to be honest, when Janet recommended a Canadian fantasy novel for middle graders I was filled with mixed emotions and the question that is always present when I pick up an MG fantasy: will this be wonderful, or will it be a didactic flop (as many, not just Canadian, MG fantasy novels are)?
Well, I’m here to tell you that this was a
pretty very solidly plain old good book. It’s got the whole package– action; high stakes; charming and smart and truly young main characters; a story and setting that capture the reader’s attention; an excellent plot with twists–and though experienced readers, like myself, may see what is coming, that is not to detract from this review because, as I said, this is simply a good book. Go and read it, recommend it to your young people, this is a great Canadian read.
On with the review!
We enter London in 1665 with Christopher Rowe, an orphan from Cripplegate Orphanage who has found himself becoming an accomplished, if foolhardily curious, apprentice to Master Benedict Blackthorn the apothecary (and secret alchemist). With Master Benedict, who is a kind father figure to Christopher (not always the case with Masters), teaches Christopher alchemical recipes for potions, poisons, and powders of all kinds. When a string of murders begins claiming the lives of prominent Master apothecaries, Christopher find himself plunged into an age-old mystery involving The Cult of the Archangel, conspiracies, codes, secret alchemists, puzzles, and pigeons. Christopher, accompanied by his loyal friend Tom, discovers that Master Benedict has armed him with the key to unravelling it all—if he has the heart for it.
Kevin Sands shows his skill by immediately and deftly bringing the reader into the world of Christopher Rowe. Seamlessly, the reader understands that this is a place of wigged gentlemen (patriarchy rules), gruff shop owners, drunks on the street, street urchins, orphaned children, and ridiculous Dickensian institutions. It’s fabulous. Sands blends real history (mentions of royalty, the plague, the fire etc…) with his own contrivances very well and this helps to maintain the interest of the reader but also keep them grounded and knowledgeable about this very complex world.
The characters, Christopher and Tom are absolutely believable and relatable. Christopher, our clever main character and POV, is a curious boy who only gets into trouble when he absolutely needs to try something—but who will truly do anything to please Master Benedict, who has proudly taken Christopher under his wing. Tom lives at home with his huge family and often dangerously angry father, he is incredibly loyal and, though not incredibly clever, Tom has wisdom where Christopher has raw intelligence. This makes for a wonderful bromance with many moments of hilarious and amiable nuance. While there is a certain female pigeon who steals a scene or two, the one thing missing from the novel is a female presence. However, I don’t know how much space there really is for one in this first installment, so I think this’ll be something we can look forward to in sequels.
For me, as you might remember, it is so important that the reader be able to piece together the clues with or even slightly before the main character. It’s nice if there are some things that are out of reach for the reader that only exist in the fantasy world, but if logic holds true then some things should come together giving the reader a very satisfying feeling. So, part of the magic of Sands’ world is that readers, who only know what Christopher knows, can figure out the puzzles as the story moves forward with Chris, so much so that it’s almost an interactive experience. It’s very well done and not easily accomplished without it feeling a little gimmicky—which this does not.
Be warned, this novel is painfully tragic at times—we are reading about an orphan, rampant murders, people who abuse their power, and a curious and steadfast main character. We are bound to have a few tear-jerking moments.
There is some bloody violence, carnage, and death in this book. I thought this helped raise the stakes, I thought it was believable and simply part of the story, but it is worth putting the warning here. There are a few instances of child abuse (sort of off scene, but still there). And, there’s lots of talk of religion–in the DaVinci Code sort of way (though written WAY better than the DaVinci Code).
Blackthorn Key is a wonderful Canadian middle grade read, and regardless of region, is a great comp title for Percy Jackson or Artemis Fowl. It fulfills all the requirements of a good middle grade read, and though it’s a little bit gritty, it’ll keep your reader enthralled.