Book Review #74: The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

Friday, 11 December 2015
Please note that before you read this review that I am reviewing this publication for Puffin. I received an advanced readers copy of this title in exchange for an honest review. In no way is my opinion influenced by the fact that I received this free of charge. Now on with the review.

TitleThe Blackthorn Key
AuthorKevin Sands
Publisher: Puffin
Format: Paperback
Publication DateSeptember 3rd 2015
Source: Review Copy from Publisher
PurchaseThe Book Depository / Waterstones

London, 1665. Fourteen-year-old Christopher Rowe is apprenticed to master apothecary Benedict Blackthorn. In Blackthorn’s shop, Christopher learns the delicate secrets of transforming simple ingredients into powerful medicines, potions and weapons. His beloved master guides him with a firm, steady hand—instilling in him the confidence and independence that prove increasingly vital as Christopher learns of a mysterious cult preying on the most learned men in London. The murders are growing closer and closer to home and soon Christopher is torn from the shop with only a page of cryptic clues from his master and the unambiguous warning—‘Tell no one.’

Helped by his best friend, Tom, Christopher must decipher his master’s clues, following a trail of deceit towards an unearthly secret with the power to tear the world apart.

After being approached by the publishers about this novel, being pitched as similar to Rick Riordan, I had to pick it up. Whilst it took me a while to read, solely down to my lack of free time and nothing against the book, The Blackthorn Key from Kevin Sands had me gripped from the very first page. The Blackthorn Key follows the tale of young Christopher, an apprentice to a master apothecary. Whilst at first glances (ignoring the synopsis) I assumed this novel to take the plot of perfecting some potion, it soon took a drastic turn. With murder, puzzle solving, political intrigue, religious cults, The Blackthorn Key packs a mighty punch as a middle grade novel, and the journey our main character goes on throughout this novel definitely reflects just how much work Sands has put into his debut.

Set in the 17th Century, Sands builds up his world with historical accuracy - never overloading the reader with too much information that would turn some off the book. Every detail was woven into the story beautifully and the way Sands introduced political intrigue in this book was stunning. With both royal and religious powers in play, you were able to see the dynamics between both parties and more importantly, the accuracy of the historical era the book is set in.

The characters in this book were all very strong and I found each of them to be extremely likeable in their own ways. Starting with the main protagonist, Christopher - he is confident, witty and yet there are small elements of fragility to his character that really make him realistic. Using his intellect, a lot of the choices Christopher makes in this novel are very logical and thought through. This not only makes the situations in this novel feel very fluid and accurate, but also gives the book a healthy pace and creates a bond of realism between character and reader. In my opinion, what Sands does for creating strong and powerful friendships in this book is phenomenal. The friendship between Christopher and his best friend feels so organic and natural that you would never question just how real it feels as you read along. They have a relationship not to dissimilar to what could be referred to these days as a 'bromance' and I was incredibly interested to see their relationship develop. The antagonists were powerful and intrinsic to read about and the development throughout the novel added a lot of depth that really prolongs the story, well after the reader has finished the final page purely down to the logic behind their actions. It definitely leaves the reader questioning their morals and ideals beyond the boundaries of the book. I think my only slight query with the characters was the lack of female presence in this book. Beyond powerful and adorable children, a mother character and a pigeon, I felt that this book was very one sided in terms of attracting a very male centred audience. Whilst in some lights I find this to be refreshing due to the fact that younger males don't tend to be as interested in reading as females, I would have liked to have seen some more female characters that young girls could relate with when reading.

The plot of this book is fast paced and constantly surprising. With every page turn, our main character is faced with a new dilemma that is logically thought through and practically tackled - only to have the process repeat. Whilst some people may find this slightly repetitive, I think it only empowered the book and made it that much stronger to read. This repetitive process amplifies the struggles brought about in the plot and made the scenarios seem that little bit more realistic. Although being a middle grade novel, you would assume the plot to be more on the simplistic side, it is not the case for The Blackthorn Key. Sands not only packs his novel with powerful messages about family and the perils of loss, but woven throughout the story are darker themes and events that I haven't often seen tackled in other middle grade I've read. Whilst some themes such as murder and cults may shock younger readers, it's nothing too extreme that you won't want them reading it. It's tackled in a unique way where although it's mentioned frequently, it's also glazed over slightly, making the reader aware of the situation without going into heavy details.

The only other query I had about the book was the fluidity of the writing style as the book went on. In the beginning and during descriptive scenes, Sands creates beautiful imagery and prose that will intrigue readers into reading on. His pace is on the whole, consistent and healthy. However, I found myself feeling a bit too rushed during some of the faster paced scenes where the characters had limited time to make decisions. Whilst realistic in the idea, I did find myself questioning whether it needed to be rushed through that fast. A lot of those faster paced scenes would have benefited from Sands' fluid description to flesh out the scene more to allow the reader to fully absorb what was going on.

All in all this was a fantastic middle grade debut and I thoroughly enjoyed it. As part of a series you can bet I am going to be picking up the sequel, but what is wonderful about this book is how it works on it's own. Similar to how I have seen VE Schwab end A Darker Shade of Magic, the novel stands as a conclusive ending that readers will enjoy, and yet opens the world up to so many more opportunities for Christopher's adventures to begin. I award The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands a 4 out of 5 star rating on my classification scale. Sands is definitely an author that readers should be keeping their eyes on in the next few years. His debut was an utter delight!

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