Book Reviews, YA Book Club for Writers

Book Club Review: The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

“Tell no one what I’ve given you.”

Until he got that cryptic warning, Christopher Rowe was happy, learning how to solve complex codes and puzzles and creating powerful medicines, potions, and weapons as an apprentice to Master Benedict Blackthorn—with maybe an explosion or two along the way.

But when a mysterious cult begins to prey on London’s apothecaries, the trail of murders grows closer and closer to Blackthorn’s shop. With time running out, Christopher must use every skill he’s learned to discover the key to a terrible secret with the power to tear the world apart.

Our thoughts about this book:

I can’t tell you how, after a couple of somewhat duds, we were excited to read a great book! Yes, this was a great book!

The story grabs you right from the start. The opening line is a hook, ” ‘Let’s build a canon,’ I said.” And this progresses into a hilarious opening.

The plot-line is fast-paced, non-stop action creating a book you just can’t put down. For a debut novel from Kevin Sands, it’s outstanding.

The setting (London) and the historical research and accuracy are notable. Sands did a lot of research and it shows in the fine details from a 1665 world, that creates a richness within the action and a deeper layer overall.

Anything we didn’t like? Well, yeah.

We agreed that the story was quite violent and gory for a middle grade audience. Not inappropriate, I don’t think, but, some sensitive readers may choose to put the book down. But that isn’t true of any book? Not the violent gory part, but the putting it down part if a reader doesn’t connect with it. Some kids, like me when I was young, relished this kind of story. Having said that, it was also discussed that this book would be an excellent school study for older middle grades as it can tie in with so many curriculum subjects in science, math and history. If teacher’s guides don’t exist (we didn’t look), it may be beneficial to have them.

We also wondered if it would have been better written for a young adult audience instead of middle grade, however, the main character, Christopher Rowe is fourteen, a necessary age for an apothecary apprentice. So perhaps we settle then on recommending this for older middle grade.

We also had some discussion over politically correct aspects that could have been easily added in. For instance, there was room for other cultural representations through the various apothecaries and the librarian in the story, it felt very white-washed. And although the little girl characters were represented positively as smart and strong, it would have been nice to have a representation of an older strong female character perhaps as a side-kick to the main character.

This is a great adventure and mystery book combined. Keeping company with Christopher as he follows clues and solves puzzles were fun parts of the book. And although there are some fantastical elements to the story, they don’t overtake.

As the first book in a series of four, The Blackthorn Key tied up the ending nicely making this a stand alone book, however it hints just enough about the story to follow to intrigue the reader. Two of us already bought the second book in the series, which actually takes place during the black plague – which should make it an interesting read for right now while we deal with our own pandemic.

What did we learn from reading this book to apply to our own writing? Research makes for a richer story. Some of us prefer character driven novels over adventure plot-based stories. There is great importance in well-placed comic relief and having one character in particular to provide it. Keep the action going with unexpected plot-twists and turns.

We do recommend this book.


This is an unsolicited review. I purchased my copy from

  • Paperback : 400 pages
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1481446525
  • Publisher : Aladdin (May 3 2016)

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