The Blackthorn Key is an engaging middle grade historical/mystery that reads very much like a 12-year-old-friendly version of an Umberto Eco book. Set during the English Restoration (17th century, when Charles II was restored to the throne after Olive Cromwell’s puritan revolution/civil war) the book has wonderful historical perspectives on the times that aren’t overbearing or obtrusive to the story. But at heart, this is a book about a boy’s adventures in London trying to solve the mystery of his apothecary master’s mysterious nightly excursions.
Story: Christopher Rowe was saved from the orphanage when a apothecary guildmember noted his mixing skills. Apprenticed to Master Blackthorn, a gentle and kind person boss, Christopher is learning valuable skills that will elevate him above his humble beginnings. But when fellow apothecary guild members begin turning up dead, and with a rumor of a mysterious “cult of the Archangel” behind the killings, Christopher and friend Tom will have to use all their courage and mettle to survive.
The Blackthorn Key makes great use of astronomy, botany and especially chemistry to solve puzzles that will lead to the source of the murders. Christopher is intent on saving his master, Blackthorn, from the deadly cult – one intent on discovering an alchemical reaction that could change the course of British (and perhaps the world) history.
There are several surprises along the way and certainly Christopher and Tom have great adventures that middle graders will love. But this is also a book that adults can appreciate – from the historical details/milieu, a touch of supernatural mystery, to some great twists and turns.
The characters are true to the era as well as their ages. Combined with a very easy and fast read, this is a book that achieves much and rewards on several levels. Certainly, as an adult I enjoyed reading this and then passing it to my 12 year old. It led to some interesting discussions about the English Civil War and the Restoration period.
Recommended for all ages. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.