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.