The blackthorn key

Kevin Sands

Book - 2015

In 1665 London, fourteen-year-old Christopher Rowe, apprentice to an apothecary, and his best friend, Tom, try to uncover the truth behind a mysterious cult, following a trail of puzzles, codes, pranks, and danger toward an unearthly secret with the power to tear the world apart.

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New York : Aladdin 2015.
Main Author
Kevin Sands (-)
First Aladdin hardcover edition
Physical Description
371 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

WHEN CHRISTOPHER ROWE, the central character of Kevin Sands's "The Blackthorn Key," is taken from a miserable life at an orphanage and apprenticed to the gentle, absent-minded apothecary Master Benedict Blackthorn, he displays both curiosity and intelligence. Other than an unfortunate incident involving gunpowder and a stuffed bear, his master is happy with him. But soon apothecaries start turning up dead all over London. After Christopher's master is pulled into the gruesome affair, the boy tries to learn who is behind the murders. His loyal and often unappreciated best friend, Tom, accompanies him on a quest that tests both boys' mettle, their ability to solve complicated riddles and the strength of their friendship. In this impeccably researched debut, Christopher learns that there was much more to his kindly, distracted master than he realized - and that his own intellect and confidence are the strongest weapons against evil. Sands's representation of the teeming, stinking streets of 17th-century London is remarkable in its detail. We meet paranoid politicians, witness the casual abuse of children and hear the ubiquity of Christian idioms and ideologies. It all feels very real, despite fantastical touches like a mystical cult and a substance that harnesses "the power of God Himself." Though Sands avoids, for the most part, the dreaded fantasy-novel "info dump," the early narrative is occasionally slowed by Christopher's flashbacks. But the story gains a relentless momentum in the second half, when Christopher shines as a humorous narrator who is flawed enough to be relatable, but not so flawed that we can't imagine him succeeding in his quest. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the book is the trust Christopher's master places in him. In a genre where many adults are either dead, detached or outright villainous, a caring adult with complete faith in his charge's savvy is a nice change. The true villains of the book are cleverly concealed, resulting in a puzzle-filled, satisfyingly twisty tale. "The Doldrums," by Nicholas Gannon, presents readers with an entirely different kind of puzzle: the question of how the novel's imaginative but insulated protagonist will ever escape his painfully unadventurous life. Like "The Blackthorn Key," the story is absorbing, the characters memorable (though both books do suffer from a marked ethnic homogeneity as well as a dearth of positive female characters, neither of which reflects the diverse readership of middle-grade novels). Archer B. Helmsley, the grandson of two unabashed adventurers, lives in a brownstone filled with souvenirs of their globetrotting. Growing up in such a fascinating home understandably gives the boy a desire for adventures of his own. Unfortunately for him, he lives with an ineffectual father and a mother with a Dursley-esque aversion to strange "tendencies." She rarely allows him to leave the house, but his grandparents' disappearance on an iceberg in Antarctica offers him his chance to escape his tedious existence. Archer decides to find out what has happened to them by visiting Antarctica himself and enlists the aid of his reluctant neighbor Oliver and his mysterious new friend Adélaïde. None of the children in the book are perfect. While they can be clever and generous, they are also, on occasion, selfish and deceitful. The narrator's acknowledgment of this endears them to the reader further, as if to say, "Well, really, when you were growing up, were you any better?" The adult characters lack the multidimensionality of their young counterparts. The villainess is pure evil, the grandparents idealized. But perhaps this reflects Archer's mind-set: As such a sheltered child, he doesn't have the life experience to recognize much depth in grown-ups. At its best, "The Doldrums" brings to mind the authority and panache of authors like Roald Dahl and Beatrix Potter, though without quite those authors' skill at narrative propulsion. At least the leisurely pacing allows the reader to pore over Gannon's stunning, full-color illustrations instead of hurrying to the next chapter. And it's clear that "The Doldrums" is not meant to be a breakneck tale of adventure; it is more a meditation on the idea of adventure. As such, it is a dreamy charmer of a book, full of clever wordplay that practically demands it be read out loud. SABAA TAHIR is the author of the novel "An Ember in the Ashes."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [November 24, 2015]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* For most orphans in seventeenth-century London, life is cruel and short. Christopher Rowe is one of the lucky few: chosen for an apprenticeship to a kind and brilliant apothecary, Benedict Blackthorn, Christopher is happily learning to solve complex intellectual puzzles and concoct everything from healing potions to gunpowder. But this idyll is not destined to last someone is murdering the apothecaries of London. On Christopher's fourteenth birthday, Blackthorn is killed, the shop ransacked, and suspicion falls on the young apprentice. Beleaguered and on the run, his only assistance the help of his friend Tom, Christopher must follow his master's last instructions, written as a series of puzzles, to uncover the secret superweapon sought by his master's murderers and then decide what to do with it. Sands' thrilling debut is full of twists, turns, and ingenious codes and riddles. At the same time, the book also brings Reformation England to life in exquisite period detail, exploring the roots of modern science, medicine, and explosives, and Christopher's moral dilemma of what to do with a doomsday weapon is both touching and timeless. This is the kind of story that cuts across genres to appeal to a wide range of children.--Zeitlin Cooke, Ariel Copyright 2015 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

First-time novelist Sands has written an exciting and self-assured tale of alchemy and dark secrets set during the late-17th-century reign of King Charles II. Fourteen-year-old orphan Christopher Rowe is lucky to be apprenticed to a kindly apothecary, Master Benedict Blackthorn. But someone-the Cult of the Archangel, it is rumored-is murdering London's apothecaries, believing that members of the Apothecary's Guild are concealing a dangerous secret. Christopher is an easygoing boy, fond of pranks and experiments (the book opens with his ill-advised and ill-fated attempt at mixing up some gunpowder), but after Master Benedict is assaulted, he finds himself on the run, pursued by the murderous henchmen of a rival apothecary and the dangerous Lord Richard Ashcombe, His Majesty's Warden. Sands adeptly balances the novel's darker turns with moments of levity and humor, and fills the book with nicely detailed characters and historical background-plus lots of explosions. It's a story that should have broad appeal, while especially intriguing readers with an existing interest in chemistry, history, and decoding puzzles. Ages 10-14. Agent: Daniel Lazar, Writers House. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by School Library Journal Review

Gr 4-6-An auspicious debut middle grade novel. Set in the 1600s, the story revolves around Christopher Rowe, the apprentice to a Master Apothecary. After losing his master, Christopher begins to unravel a series of complex codes that his master had, unbeknownst to Chris, been preparing him to solve all along. The more that the protagonist uncovers, the more he finds himself in danger, along with his loyal-to-a-fault best friend. The story is well paced, managing not only to keep readers hooked but also second guessing everything they think they know. Sands integrates a series of fun and interesting riddles and codes with chemistry concepts-no easy feat. The ending is dynamic and rewarding, with just the right blend of the fantastical and realistic. One of the true triumphs is the author's ability to create a character who feels accurate for the time period, while also displaying a modern sensibility that will keep readers engaged. The action does get intense but would still be appropriate for upper elementary school students. VERDICT This is an excellent story for readers who enjoy puzzles, action, and fantasy; keep an eye out for future installments.-Chad Lane, Easton Elementary, Wye Mills, MD © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Horn Book Review

Orphan and apothecary's apprentice Christopher Rowe lives a happy, hardworking life in seventeenth-century London until a string of murders comes too close, killing his mentor, Master Benedict Blackthorn. Using his training in codes and medicines and his quick mind, Christopher must discover the killer without getting killed himself. Sands's adventurous, fast-paced debut will keep readers on the edge of their seats from page one. (c) Copyright 2016. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

It is 1665 London, and the streets are filled with orphans, thieves, madmen, and a few young apprentices as eager to have fun as to learn their trades. Fourteen-year-old Christopher is luckier than most. The apothecary Master Benedict Blackthorn is both intelligent and kind, forgiving both Christopher's mistakes as well as his ill-planned pranks. But when the Cult of the Archangel kills his master, Christopher is determined to complete his master's work and bring the killers to justice. However, all he has for help are his friend, baker's son Tom, and a hastily scribbled coded message from his master. This stunning and smart mystery is made even better by well-researched historical detail, intriguing characters, and genuinely funny moments. Whether accidentally shooting the shop's taxidermed bear with his homemade gun powder or outsmarting a ruthless cult of killers, Christopher makes a terrific protagonist, but it's his love for his friends and master as well as his fearless intellectual curiosity that make him a true hero. An epigraph sagely, if unnecessarily, warns against employing the many 17th-century remedies. While many readers will love the story, it is unlikely they will try a recipe for saltpeter that involves marinating pigeon droppings in urinebut they will revel in reciting it at dinnertime. An author's note discusses standardized spelling and the Gregorian vs. Julian calendars. A spectacular debut. (Historical mystery. 8-12) Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

The Blackthorn Key CHAPTER 1 "LET'S BUILD A CANNON," I said. Tom wasn't listening. He was deep in concentration, tongue pinched between his teeth, as he steeled himself for combat with the stuffed black bear that ruled the front corner of my master's shop. Tom stripped off his linen shirt and flung it heroically across the antimony cups gleaming on the display table near the fire. From the oak shelf nearest to him, he snatched the glazed lid of an apothecary jar--Blackthorn's Wart-Be-Gone, according to the scrawl on the label--and held it on guard, a miniature ceramic shield. In his right hand, the rolling pin wobbled threateningly. Tom Bailey, son of William the Baker, was the finest fake soldier I'd ever seen. Though only two months older than me, he was already a foot taller, and built like a blacksmith, albeit a slightly pudgy one, due to a steady pilfering of his father's pies. And in the safety of my master's shop, away from the horrors of battle like death, pain, or even a mild scolding, Tom's courage held no equal. He glared at the inanimate bear. The floorboards creaked as he stepped within range of its wickedly curved claws. Tom shoved the curio cabinet aside, making the brass balances jingle. Then he hoisted his flour-dusted club in salute. The frozen beast roared back silently, inch-long teeth promising death. Or several minutes of tedious polishing, at least. I sat on the counter at the back, legs dangling, and clicked leather heels against the carved cedar. I could be patient. You had to be, sometimes, with Tom, whose mind worked as it pleased. "Think you can steal my sheep, Mr. Bear?" he said. "I'll give you no quarter this day." Suddenly, he stopped, rolling pin held outward in midlunge. I could almost see the clockwork cranking between his ears. "Wait. What?" He looked back at me, puzzled. "What did you say?" "Let's build a cannon," I said. "What does that mean?" "Just what you think it means. You and me. Build a cannon. You know." I spread my hands. "Boom?" Tom frowned. "We can't do that." "Why not?" "Because people can't just build cannons, Christopher." He said it like he was explaining why you shouldn't eat fire to a small, dull child. "But that's where cannons come from," I said. "People build them. You think God sends cannons down from heaven for Lent?" "You know what I mean." I folded my arms. "I don't understand why you're not more excited about this." "Maybe that's because you're never the one on the pointy end of your schemes." "What schemes? I don't have any schemes." "I spent all night throwing up that 'strength potion' you invented," he said. He did look a little dark under the eyes today. "Ah. Yes. Sorry." I winced. "I think I put in too much black snail. It needed less snail." "What it needed was less Tom." "Don't be such a baby," I said. "Vomiting is good for you, anyway. It balances the humors." "I like my humors the way they are," he said. "But I have a recipe this time." I grabbed the parchment I'd leaned against the coin scales on the countertop and waved it at him. "A real one. From Master Benedict." "How can a cannon have a recipe?" "Not the whole cannon. Just the gunpowder." Tom got very still. He scanned the jars around him, as if among the hundreds of potions, herbs, and powders that ringed the shop was a remedy that would somehow get him out of this. "That's illegal." "Knowing a recipe isn't illegal," I said. "Making it is." That was true. Only masters, and only those with a royal charter, were allowed to mix gunpowder. I was a long way from either. "And Lord Ashcombe is on the streets today," Tom said. Now that made me pause. "You saw him?" Tom nodded. "On Cheapside, after church. He had two of the King's Men with him." "What'd he look like?" "Mean." "Mean" was exactly what I'd imagined. Lord Richard Ashcombe, Baron of Chillingham, was King Charles's loyal general, and His Majesty's Warden here in London. He was in the city hunting for a pack of killers. In the past four months, five men had been butchered in their homes. Each of them had been tied up, tortured, then slit open at the stomach and left to bleed to death. Three of the victims had been apothecaries, a fact that had me seeing assassins in the shadows every night. No one was sure what the killers wanted, but sending in Lord Ashcombe meant the king was serious about stopping them. Lord Ashcombe had a reputation for getting rid of men hostile to the Crown--usually by sticking their heads on pikes in the public square. Still, we didn't need to be that cautious. "Lord Ashcombe's not coming here," I said, as much to myself as to Tom. "We haven't killed anyone. And the King's Warden isn't likely to stop by for a suppository, is he?" "What about your master?" Tom said. "He doesn't need a suppository." Tom made a face. "I mean, isn't he coming back? It's getting close to dinnertime." He said "dinnertime" with a certain wistfulness. "Master Benedict just bought the new edition of Culpeper's herbal," I said. "He's at the coffeehouse with Hugh. They'll be gone for ages." Tom pressed his ceramic shield to his chest. "This is a bad idea." I hopped down from the counter and grinned. •  •  • To be an apothecary, you must understand this: The recipe is everything. It isn't like baking a cake. The potions, creams, jellies, and powders Master Benedict made--with my help--required an incredibly delicate touch. A spoonful too little niter, a pinch too much aniseed, and your brilliant new remedy for dropsy would congeal instead into worthless green goo. But new recipes didn't fall from the sky. You had to discover them. This took weeks, months, even years of hard work. It cost a fortune, too: ingredients, apparatus, coal to stoke the fire, ice to chill the bath. Most of all, it was dangerous. Blazing fires. Molten metals. Elixirs that smelled sweet but ate away your insides. Tinctures that looked as harmless as water but threw off deadly, invisible fumes. With each new experiment, you gambled with your life. So a working formula was better than gold. If you could read it. ↓M08→ 02160911101825261310092611221315240322132410220710092611221315141607011613010417261122131514142207151126152613021304092514261122132215260720080419 Tom scratched his cheek. "I thought there'd be more words and things." "It's in code," I said. He sighed. "Why is it always in code?" "Because other apothecaries will do anything to steal your secrets. When I have my own shop," I said proudly, "I'm putting everything in code. No one's going to swipe my recipes." "No one will want your recipes. Except poisoners, I suppose." "I said I was sorry." "Maybe this is in code," Tom said, "because Master Benedict doesn't want anyone to read it. And by 'anyone,' I mean you." "He teaches me new ciphers every week." "Did he teach you this one?" "I'm sure he'd planned to." "Christopher." "But I figured it out. Look." I pointed at the notation ↓M08→. "It's a substitution cipher. Every two numbers stand for one letter. This tells you how to swap them. Start with '08,' and replace it with M. Then count forward. So 08 is M, 09 is N, and so on. Like this." I showed him the table I'd worked out. A 20 B 21 C 22 D 23 E 01 F 02 G 03 H 04 I 05 K 06 L 07 M 08 N 09 O 10 P 11 Q 12 R 13 S 14 T 15 V 16 X 17 Y 18 Z 19 Tom looked between the cipher and the block of numbers at the top of the page. "So if you replace the numbers with the right letters . . ." ". . . You get your message." I flipped the parchment over to show the translation I'd inked on the back. Gunpowder One part charcoal. One part sulfur. Five parts saltpeter. Grind separately. Mix. Which is what we did. We set up on the larger display table, farther from the fireplace, based on Tom's reasonable suggestion that gunpowder and flames weren't friends. Tom moved the bleeding spoons from the table and got the mortars and pestles from the window near the bear while I pulled the ingredient jars from the shelves. I ground the charcoal. Sooty clouds puffed into the air, mixing with the earthy scent of the dried roots and herbs hanging from the rafters. Tom, glancing uneasily at the front door for any sign of my master, took care of the saltpeter, crushing the crystals that looked just like ordinary table salt. The sulfur was already a fine yellow powder, so while Tom swirled the ingredients together, I got a length of brass pipe sealed at one end from the workshop in the back. I used a nail to widen a hole near the sealed end. Into that, I slipped a loop of woven, ash-colored cord. Tom raised his eyebrows. "Master Benedict keeps cannon fuse?" "We use it to light things from far away," I said. "You know," Tom said, "things you have to light from far away probably shouldn't be lit at all." The mixture we ended up with looked harmless, just a fine black powder. Tom poured it into the open end while I propped up the pipe. A narrow stream spilled over the side, scattering charcoal grains onto the floor. I stamped the powder in the tube down with cotton wadding. "What are we going to use for a cannonball?" Tom said. Master Benedict didn't keep anything in the store that would fit snugly in the pipe. The best I could come up with was a handful of lead shot we used for shavings to put in our remedies. They scraped down the brass and landed with a hollow thump on the cotton at the bottom. Now we needed a target, and soon. It had taken a lot longer to put everything together than I thought it would, and though I'd assured Tom that my master wouldn't return, his comings and goings weren't exactly predictable. "We're not firing this thing outside," Tom said. He was right about that. The neighbors would not look kindly on lead shot flying through their parlors. And as tempting a target as the stuffed beaver on the mantel was, Master Benedict was even less likely to appreciate us going to war with the animals that decorated his shop. "What about that?" I said. Hanging from the ceiling near the fireplace was a small iron cauldron. "We can shoot at the bottom of it." Tom pushed aside the antimony cups on the other table, leaving enough space to put down the cauldron. I picked up our cannon and pressed it against my abdomen to hold it steady. Tom tore a scrap of parchment from our deciphered recipe and held it in the fire until it caught. Then he lit the cannon's wick. Sparks fizzed, racing toward the pipe like a flaming hornet. Tom dived behind the counter and peeked over the top. "Watch this," I said. The blast nearly blew my ears off. I saw a burst of flame, and a mound of smoke, then the pipe kicked back like an angry ox and nailed me right between the legs. Excerpted from The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.