Apprentice Apothecary Solves Serial Murders

The Blackthorn Key, by Kevin Sands, (Aladdin, Simon & Schuster), 384 pages, release date 1 September, 2015, publisher recommended for ages 10-14

I wish that Kevin Sands’ The Blackthorn Key had been around when I was in sixth grade. It combines so many of the topics I was obsessed with at the time: mysteries and detective work, magic and alchemy, and  characters my own age whose lives were much more adventurous and dangerous than my own.

Christopher Rowe, the central character (and the character I’d imagine myself as, never mind the difference in our genders), has luckily fallen into an apprenticeship before he “ages out” of the orphanage that he’s called home. Many of his peers wind up as servants or common laborers—or are just tossed out into the street to survive however they might, but Christopher is taken in by by Master Benedict Blackthorn, an exceptionally gifted apothecary and an exceptionally gentle man.

Christopher manages to get himself into trouble regularly—the book opens shortly after he’s experimented with homemade gunpowder and an improvised cannon with unhappy results. Trouble brews in the larger world, as well. Just five years after the restoration, Puritans and Catholics alike resent King Charles’ Rule. Meanwhile, apothecaries have become the victims of a series of murders credited to the Cult of the Archangel—though no one really knows who the cult members are or what their goals might be.

Using skills he’s learned from his Master—cryptography, alchemy, chemistry—Christopher determines to stop the Cult of the Archangel before they can do more harm. Not surprisingly, the gun powder-making comes in handy before the novel is through.

The language of the novel didn’t always leave me feeling I was in Restoration England; its rhythms and vocabulary seemed a bit more modern. Nonetheless, the character of Christopher was so compelling that he made his world real to me, despite the lack of more period-inflected dialogue.

If you know any late grade-schoolers or early middle-schoolers who dream of adventure in a world where magic still seems possible, The Blackthorn Key would provide them with a satisfying read.

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