Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Blackthorn Key

The Blackthorn Key
by Kevin Sands
Recommened Ages: 13+

I have often thought about categorizing the books I read according to the Hogwarts subject for which they might serve as extra-credit reading. Under that scheme, this book would be pretty near the top of the list for Potions. It has puzzles, clues, dangerous secrets, gruesome murders, dastardly conspirators, and a brave, resourceful orphan who fights back when the dark side takes away the only loving family he has ever had. What better way to spend time while waiting for the owl with your Hogwarts acceptance letter?

The date is 1665, and the place is London. King Charles II has been restored to the throne after Oliver Cromwell's Puritan interim in the British monarchy. Helping keep him on it is the king's warden, a terrifying brute named Sir Richard Ashcombe. It's a dangerous time and place to be anything but a devout member of the Church of England - a time when being either a Catholic or a Puritan, for instance, could be viewed as disloyalty to the crown. Among the groups whose loyalty saved them from the restoration's bloody purge is the Apothecaries' Guild, of whom Christopher Rowe's master, Benedict Blackthorn, is a member.

Christopher, 14, is in his third year as Blackthorn's apprentice. He has already learned enough about mixing medicines to run the shop by himself, at times, when he isn't inventing explosive trouble for himself and his best friend, a baker's son named Tom. Master Benedict has treated him with kindness beyond what most apprentices of that era can expect. But Benedict doesn't share Christopher's worry about the rumors that a group called the Cult of the Archangel is killing off apothecaries all over London. The master tells his apprentice there is no such cult. But then, after beating the boy in an unprecedented fit of anger and sending him off on a pointless errand, Benedict turns up murdered just like the other victims.

The boy eventually realizes that Benedict hit him and scolded him to save his life, that he had already recognized his killers among the customers in their busy shop, and that he has left behind a message for Christopher's eyes only - a coded message ending in the Latin words nemini dixeris - "Tell no one." The rest of the clue takes longer to decipher, and it leads Christopher on a dangerous quest to learn the truth that cost his master's life. With Sir Richard suspecting the boy of murder and offering a reward for his capture, and someone connected to the Guild ransacking Blackthorn's shop in search of a long-sought alchemical formula, Christopher's fate depends on the kindness of a madman, the devotion of one true friend, and his own puzzle-solving, quick-thinking, potion-mixing wits. He must learn fast who his true enemies are, act even faster to survive their attempts on his life, and find a key unlike any key ever made before, all to unlock a secret that, perhaps, would be best left undiscovered forever.

The ways young Christopher proves himself brilliant are too numerous to list in this short review. Besides, I don't want to spoil too much of your fun as you discover, with him, the awful power of a formula some men would consider worth killing for - not to mention a way out of the corner he is in, with Sir Richard closing in on one side and his master's killers on the other. Along the way, Christopher guides the reader on a 101-level introduction to the remedies, poisons, and downright chemical weapons that were available to apothecaries of his day - as well as a touch of alchemy that might have moved up the timetable on Armageddon a bit, if it had been unleashed in Christopher's time. The author's "don't try this at home" advisory is well-placed. Between the lines, one might detect a wish that entire nations hadn't "tried this" - at home, or anywhere - in the case of discoveries that would literally alter the landscape in later centuries. But focusing on Christopher's time, this book gives a fascinating account of it, filled with thrills, battles, pyrotechnics, and spookiness.

This is a debut novel whose sequel, Mark of the Plague, is scheduled for release in September 2016. Its author, according to his website, lives in Toronto, holds two degrees in theoretical physics and has been, among other things, a professional poker player. Judging by this start, he may have found his true calling at last.

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