Monday, February 29, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE BLACKTHORN KEY by Kevin Sands

THE BLACKTHORN KEY (by Kevin Sands, Aladdin 2015)

(This title was the winner of the 2016 Middle Grade Cybils award!)

What It's About (from the author's website): 
Following a series of murders, an apothecary’s apprentice must solve puzzles and decipher codes in pursuit of a secret that could destroy the world in this suspenseful debut novel.

Christopher Rowe, apprentice to Master Apothecary Benedict Blackthorn, is learning all his master’s secrets—like how to decipher complex codes and puzzles, and how to transform simple ingredients into powerful medicines, potions, and weapons.

Christopher’s beloved master guides him with a firm, steady hand—a confidence even more vital as Christopher learns of a mysterious cult preying on London’s apothecaries. The murders grow closer and closer to Blackthorn’s shop…until Christopher is torn from his home with only a cryptic message and a warning from his master: “Tell no one what I’ve given you.”

Aided by his best friend, Tom, Christopher must race to decipher his master’s message—and follow a trail of deceit toward an unearthly secret with the power to tear the world apart.

Opening Lines: (There's a prologue, but I want to feature the great writing of these first lines of 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."
Why I Liked It:

  1. The writing, plain and simple. You can see from the very opening lines that you are in the hands of a master. The cadence of the sentences is perfect; each word is perfectly chosen. Think "steeled for combat," rather than "ready to fight." And the bear "rules" rather than sits or anything else. In a bare three sentences, I am primed for good stuff.
  2. The characters. Christopher, the apprentice apothecary, and his friend Tom are likable, ingenious, and intrepid. 
  3. The setting. London in the 1660s. King Charles II has seen the monarchy restored to the throne after the years of Cromwell.
  4. Sensory details. Sands gives us London in all its stench: "It was swelteringly hot in the noonday sun, and the piles of animal dung clogging the drains let off the worst stench London had smelled in years." (Page 29) This is followed by descriptions of chamber pots and their contents, hackney coaches clattering over cobbles, and the scent of musk from horses. 
  5. Codes and clues. This is a good mystery, full of adventure and intrigue. (There is some graphic violence, so a tender-hearted reader might want to beware.)
This is a speedy, heart-pounding read. One of the best books I read last year, and a worthy winner of the Cybils' award.

About The Author (from his website):

Since escaping from university with a pair of degrees in theoretical physics, Kevin Sands has worked as a researcher, business consultant, a teacher, and a professional poker player. He lives in Toronto, Canada. The Blackthorn Key is his debut novel. WEBSITE TWITTER