Mark of the Plague by Kevin Sands

Mark of the Plague (The Blackthorn Key #2) by Kevin Sands – Red Cedar fiction nominee 2017/2018 – is a middle grade mystery set in 1665 London (England, not London, Ontario), a puzzle-quest, and the story of the links between friends – and the crevices that divide them.

Although this is the second in a series (Steph reviewed the first), understanding Mark of the Plague doesn’t rely on previous knowledge. Readers who meet Christopher here for the first time will catch on to the world and the human relationships without needing more than the book in their hands.

The plot is complex and marvelously twisty. Here’s the synopsis:

The Black Death has returned to London, spreading disease and fear through town. A mysterious prophet predicts the city’s ultimate doom — until an unknown apothecary arrives with a cure that actually works. Christopher’s Blackthorn shop is chosen to prepare the remedy. But when an assassin threatens the apothecary’s life, Christopher and his faithful friend Tom are back to hunting down the truth, risking their lives to untangle the heart of a dark conspiracy.

And as the sickness strikes close to home, the stakes are higher than ever before in this sequel to the critically acclaimed, award-winning debut The Blackthorn Key.

Christopher starts with a problem: he has no money, and between the rising tide of plague and the fact that as an apprentice he cannot sell remedies himself, he is just about out of options. He is given the chance to escape the plague – but he would have to leave Tom behind.

He refuses.

Tuesday, September 1, 1665

Yesterday’s plague deaths: 1,198

Total dead: 31,749

Each section begins with a fatality list like the one above. The physical realities of life in an epidemic for which there is no known cure are conveyed through Christopher’s situation (including his own inventive stabs at making a reliable ward against the disease) and through frankly frightening public scenes. Fear makes people desperate, and the desperate are dangerous. London is a keg of powder on a hot summer’s day, one spark away from utter destruction.

Enter Sally, beaten up by two men looking for money during a mass panic on the streets. Sally, like Christopher, came from Cripplegate Orphanage. Sally is wary, clever, bone-thin from semi-starvation, and amazingly cheerful; after all, she’s not at the orphanage anymore.

While London is in terror of the plague and divided over the prophet, Melchior, who claims to see who will live and who will die, and over the physician, Galen, who claims to have found a cure, Christopher and his friends have a further preoccupation. Master Blackthorn left a treasure for Christopher before he died. What the treasure is, he doesn’t know. The recipe for Archangel’s Fire? A cure for the plague? And how does whoever broke into the shop know about the treasure?

As with The Blackthorn Key, Christopher and his allies learn more about his late master, his character and his carefully documented experiments as an apothecary. With the two adults Christopher most trusts out of reach, the three friends have to be exceedingly careful as they investigate the prophet, search for the treasure, and assist (Tom), ignore (Sally), or resent Galen’s temporary takeover of the Blackthorn shop. The plot twists most unexpectedly all the way until the final scene, where everything becomes terribly clear just the moment before the explosive ending.

Um. Which makes the story sound doom-laden. Which it kind of is – case in point: plague death toll chapter section headings. And yet that doesn’t describe the feel of the story at all – the resourcefulness of and deep affection between the three friends; the absolute courage of plague doctors such as Dr. Parrett, who treat the infected as best as they can; the careful thought that went into hiding the treasure, and the quick wits that seek to uncover it; the compassion and human decency that seem all the brighter against the opportunistic greed that profits off the suffering of people desperate to live through the plague.

Readers who liked the first book won’t be disappointed by the second. I would still suggest reading The Blackthorn Key before starting Mark of the Plague if you can, to avoid mild spoilers, but jumping right in is fine if you’re short on time. Recommended for those who like mystery, historical fiction, fantasy (this isn’t but it sure reads like it), medical mysteries, scientific experiments, puzzles, and found families.

“No,” Tom said.

“No to what?” I said.

“Whatever you’re thinking.”

“I haven’t even said anything yet.”

“And I’m happier that way.” (p. 217)