The Blackthorn Key

Suggested by Brad Nelson • 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.
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27 Responses to The Blackthorn Key

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m putting this book up here provisionally. If it turns out to be mediocre, I will pull it down. This list is meant for can’t-miss books, not reviews of books.

    That said, 24% into this it looks promising. We’re introduced into a 1600s-era apothecary. The kindly Master runs the place and the apprentice learns all he can while keeping up a brutal pace of domestic labor. But this is a step up from some kind of school for orphans or otherwise abandoned children (called “Cripplegate”) whose only hope for a future was to be an apprentice.

    Apprentice Christopher gets lucky, although he is a talented and hard-working fellow. He caught the Master’s eye and became his apprentice where the work seems to involve being introduced to a world of bad smells…over and on top of the horrendous bad smells that are typical London.

    I’m just to the setting-up point of the book wherein the Master gives his apprentice some kind of special key for his birthday. The Master has been assaulted by someone and I’m just going to assume he doesn’t pull through.

    This may be a book steered toward a younger audience, but so far its peppered with those small details that I like. We learn of the tradition of Oak Apple Day wherein you must where a bit of oak on your clothing or risk being immediately pelted by mud, rotten eggs, and worse:

    On Oak Apple Day, everyone wore a sprig of oak to honor the return of the king, Charles II, the Merry Monarch, whose life was spared by God when he hid from Puritan traitors high in the branches of an oak tree. After a decade of exile and oppression, our king had regained his rightful place in 1660 after the tyrant Oliver Cromwell died and the city’s government of brutal, joyless Puritans fell. Now Long was allowed to have festivals—and fun— once more.

    We get such details as bird dung (from a cage of birds on the roof) regularly being put into a barrel to ferment. The apprentice would then piss on top after each small batch of bird dung. And the foulest smells emanated from the barrel as you can imagine. Later the barrel’s contents would be set out in the sun to dry and saltpeter crystals would be the result.

    Whether the mains story itself holds together as worthwhile read, I will find out.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Of course, saltpeter is needed for gunpowder, making up about 75% of it. It can be mined (India was the main source during the American Civil War, which could have made things interesting if Britain had gone to war with the North), but it’s also produced from urine and feces. The South sought to get women to use their deposits to produce it, which led to some bawdy ditties during the war. Lord Kalvan (Calvin Morrison, formerly of the Pennsylvania State Police) in H. Beam Piper’s superb Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen relies on excrement from farm animals as a source.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Indeed, apprentice Christopher’s master has died…but after another attack, not from his original wounds of the night before. It’s feared to be another assault of the Cult of the Archangel. That usually appears in italics in the novel so I do so here.

    And for some reason this cult is brutally murdering mostly apothecary owners. Whether Deep Apothecary is responsible for this (in the guise of one greedy apothecary owner who seems to want to own it all and has eyes on the Master’s shop) is yet unknown.

    But Christopher, a mere apprentice, can own (or use) none of the property of this former master now that his master is dead, so he’s on his own. They’ve even taken his “Blackthorn key” birthday present away from him although because it’s central to solving the mystery, I assume he’ll get it (or steal it) back.

    So far this is a pleasant and straightforward read. And having gotten used to mystery books written by women, it’s a pleasure to get back to a novel where things happen. In the two C.S. Harris novels that I’ve read, as well as the two Blake-and-Avery novels by M.J. Carter, there is a propensity to regurgitate some very basic plot elements. The story stalls, typically for a hundred pages or more, while the author either pads the book to novel length or simply has little imagination for story telling or feels no need to have stuff happen.

    In these female-centric books you seem to get endless regurgitation of what has already happened. I think Elsa Hart does better in “Jade Dragon Mountain” and “The White Mirror,” the latter being a significant enough improvement for me to put her next novel in the series (if any) on my must-read list.

    But it is refreshing to get back to a novel written by a man where things happens. There are sights, sounds, and especially smells (in this one) and changing circumstances. Things happen rather than just One Thing Happening and then we spend the rest of the novel interviewing suspects. There is heroism and duty and just trying to pull your cajones out of the fire.

    Whether this novel stays readable will be determined. And that this is technically a novel aimed at young readers bothers me not at all. There is no sense of the author dumbing things down. Is “The Count of Monte Cristo” a children’s book? “Treasure Island”?

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I think Treasure Island would be considered a book for children (note that the protagonist seems to be a teenager). The Count of Monte Cristo isn’t for children, though a mature child could read it. The Three Musketeers should be readable by children, but I’m not so sure about the later books in the series — again, they would be no problem for mature children.

      Christopher’s predicament is similar to the main character in the fantasy novel With a Single Spell by Lawrence Watt-Evans. His master is killed after teaching him a basic combustion spell. That’s all he knows, and no one else will take him as an apprentice now. Eventually he happens on a trove of spells, and then — hunting a dragon — he discovers that even a basic combustion spell can be handy for more than just starting a fire.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      In the two C.S. Harris novels that I’ve read, as well as the two Blake-and-Avery novels by M.J. Carter, there is a propensity to regurgitate some very basic plot elements. The story stalls, typically for a hundred pages or more, while the author either pads the book to novel length or simply has little imagination for story telling or feels no need to have stuff happen.

      I had a similar feeling withe that horrible book, “The Ripper’s Shadow.” It was made even worse by the pornographic detail which the author subjected the reader to. It made me think of those hundreds of trashy free books one sees on Amazon/Kindle. The covers show naked or half-naked men and/or women in poses that suggest the woman can’t wait for it. Yuk!

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        There’s a big market for that kind of stuff, Mr. Kung, at least I assume so. I love light, easy-to-read adventure novels as well as more challenging fare such as “Moby Dick.” But there’s another category that I’d just call “junk.”

        Some of the authors we have read lately (certainly not including “The Ripper’s Shadow”) have shown an ability for literacy and basic competency at dressing their sets and their characters even if certain elements are weak. We can hope these people (such as Hart) will keep writing and keep improving and not fall into the trap of churning out formulaic, assembly-line series of novels (which, I think could define the C.S. Harris novels, although I’ve read the latter one in the series and its entirely possible her first two or three are much better).

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m 77% into “The Blackthorn Key” and it’s still holding together. There’s no doubt this is a “young adult’s” book but it’s one with grit. Kids are getting beat up and bloodied as well as dispensing a little of their own justice to various villains. There’s murder and after-the-fact accounts of torture. And name your last Dr. Seuss type of book with Latin sprinkled throughout it.

    Mr. Kung recently posted a quote from a book (“A Deadly Shade of Gold”) that noted the media was stunted at the level of a twelve-year-old. Although “The Blackthorn Key” was published in 2015, it has not been reduced by this sliding scale whereby “children’s books” of 100 years ago are de facto college-level texts while normal “adult” books of today are the equivalent of children’s books (or worse) of 100 years ago.

    In fact, this book is apparently the first effort of Kevin Sands who has a pair of degrees in theoretical physics. That might explain it. He has a hard science background, not “gender studies.” Real guys like to tinker with things, to make things, to move things, to go places, to break things, and even to get into a little trouble. All of this is unabashedly portrayed in the book.

    A”The Blackthorn Key” is definitely a boys’/guys’ book. I don’t mind books that delve into details, psychology, frills, and fine-grained articulation of life’s complications and peculiarities. But some books you just hear that Monty Pythonesque get on with it rattling ’round your brain as the author stalls with too much navel-gazing.

    “The Blackthorn Key” gets on with it. Stuff happens. But it’s not mindless action. It’s all tied together in a coherent plot (so far, at least…it wouldn’t be the first book that fell apart in the last 50 pages). The master of young apprentice Christopher has indeed been murdered. He’s the latest in a string of murders. But by whom? Why?

    Right now the book has pleasantly taken on the flavor of the movie, “National Treasure,” as Christopher and his loyal friend, Tom, explore clues and secrets of amazing things in their search for the killers and to find justice for Christopher’s master. And not to mention in order to pull Christopher’s own chestnuts out of the fire. He is under suspicion for the murder of his master and if he can’t resolve this crime, he has no profession (apothecary) to return to and will, in effect, have to become a beggar — or worse.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Robert Heinlein wrote a lot of juveniles,and they were all perfectly good reading by adults. Indeed, one of them — Starship Troopers — was eventually marketed for adults because his juveniles publisher (Scribner’s) couldn’t see it as a juvenile.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I finished “The Blackthorn Key” last night. And although I wouldn’t call the ending stellar, it did beat this recent plague of books I’ve read that are a hundred pages too long. This one could have used fifty pages more. The ending (the setup of the ending, anyway) comes rather abruptly.

    Kevin Sands definitely has some talent. He ought to read “Treasure Island” because he’s not that far from being a very good author. I think he needs to give some depth to his characters (particularly the villains) and perhaps have a somewhat more complex plot. But this was a light, easy, and interesting read.

    If you want a slight spoiler, I’ll give you one. But because the ending of this (looking for God’s basic element or what they call “fire”) is not particularly integral to the adventure (it’s the end, but not the means), it matters little if I tell you that this “fire” sure looks a lot like nitroglycerin. I’m not familiar with the ingredients but the behavior of the product sure seems to be similar.

    This book could have use just a few more side adventures on its way to the end, with more descriptions of tools and technologies of the day. This falls just a bit short in regards to the historical aspects.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Right now I’m reading The Assassin’s Curse. This is the third book in the series. I skipped over the second one which was about Christopher and his friends somehow solving or helping with an outbreak of the plague.

    Although “The Blackthorn Key” was arguably a step above a “children’s book,” author Kevin Sands has either focused-grouped his books or is trying less hard because “The Assassin’s Curse” is definitely a young-adult’s book. That is, it’s pretty simplistic and may not hold my attention for much longer.

    But for young years, I guess this book is okay. But I’m 23% into it and running out of steam. I may stick with a little longer and see if it gets better.

  6. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m 47% into “The Assassin’s Curse.” The book is definitely more “kids’s stuff-ish” than Sands’ first book, “The Blackthorn Key,” but it’s getting a bit more substantive in the middle section. The mystery revolves around The Knights Templar and you’re getting some of the history of that order.

    Our young apothecary apprentice, Christopher, has been sent to France on a special mission to protect the king’s sister who is spending her summer at the French court. He is undercover posing as the grandson of the king’s righthand man. His companion, Tom, comes along disguised as his servant. Christopher learned to speak French from his master but otherwise he is a fish out of water. Being English (and already somewhat held in contempt by the French), they all think he’s a heathen anyway, so not much to hide.

    But someone is apparently out to murder the entire aristocracy (both French and English) seemingly in order to fulfill a prophesy left by the Templars regarding how to find their hidden treasure.

    Well, someone is definitely on a killing spree and they’ve had some success so far, if only with bystander servants.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I’ve seen speculation that the Shroud of Turin was in fact the shroud of Jacques de Molay, the last leader of the Templars, the one the French judicially murdered in search of the order’s fortune (which they never found).

      I will also note that an English writer named Michael Jecks has written a series on the adventures of a survivor of the destruction of the Templars, solving crimes with a colleague and friend from Devon.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Timothy, do you have a “Best book I ever read, fiction or historical fiction” about the Knights Templar that you can recommend?

        I found Jecks’ The Last Templar for $5.24 for the Kindle. However, it’s not very highly rated.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          I think the Jecks books are the only ones I can recall reading, and they aren’t about the Templars as a group. I think Thomas Costain may have written a book about them, but I never got around to reading it.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          A good non-fiction book about the military orders is:

          “The Monks of War”, by Desmond Seward.

  7. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I finished Sands’ third book in the series, “The Assassin’s Creed.” It’s a strange mix of children’s fiction and adult themes. For instance, at one point one of the villains gets impaled on a stalagmite. But she’s still alive. Do Christopher and Tom leave her to suffer or help put her out of her misery?

    The shtick and plotting in this book are fairly thin. And book three ends with the introduction of an obviously recurring villain. Yawn. I know for many people that might be inducement to read the next book. But I see it as cheating the reader. Finish the damn story. And, in this case, this now recurring villain had barely a presence in this book anyway. Who really cares about him? And recurring arch villains are so boring. If only because of this tired cliche I won’t be returning for book four if there is one.

    You have to give people credit for making the effort to write a book. And “The Blackthorn Key” is still well worth a read. But either Sands lacks a fertile imagination or he’s just going through the motions. If you’re writing what is an adventure novel then add more adventure. It is somewhat interesting to watch Christopher follow the clues left by the Templars in regards to their lost treasure. And Christopher and his cohorts do visit some exotic locales in the midst of doing so. You pick up some history here and there, and that’s all good.

    But at the same time, this is all so conventional. The book lacks wit and charm. You care very little for any of these characters. And that would be fine is this book was steered toward 9-year-olds but the themes and situations in it are of a far older age than that. Okay, yeah, I get that everyone wants to do The Da Vinci Code. And the good parts of the novel deal with this. But even if the main characters of the book are young adults, that doesn’t mean they can’t be at least a little complex or the plot can’t have some variety to it.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I would imagine young adults can be as complex as older ones, though they have a lot less wisdom/good sense usually.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Let me explain two main beefs I have with this novel

        1) The relationship between Christopher (the apothecary apprentice) and Tom (his larger friend…basically his muscle) is that every scene is like this: “Tom, we’re going to do X, Y, and Z.” “No way am I taking that crazy risk, Christopher.” “But, Tom, don’t we always make it out alright?”

        2) Christopher gets in over his head. Tom is always there at the last second to pull his chestnuts out of the fire. Rinse and repeat.

        And regarding the plotting, it just seemed frankly unimaginative (spoilers coming) that the ultimate secret of the Templar treasure is that it was in the old tower that people had been going over with a fine-toothed comb for centuries. But push in on a particular carved stone panel in the basement of that tower (after first inserting a coin….yes, a coin-operated stone door) and the entire panel slides away to reveal a staircase. What? There after all this time it worked smoothly? No joint was ever showing?

        I suppose that’s no worse than the gimmicks in The Da Vinci Code or National Treasure. But why not a solution far more interesting and exotic (if not also believable)? And once we find the treasure, there is almost no description of it. Why not include descriptions of what may be the wooden cross Jesus was crucified on? Maybe something that looks like the Holy Grail. But it’s all just tossed aside as a point of interest. But finding this treasure was the very point of the entire story.

        Like I said, there doesn’t even seem to be the attempt much of the time to do anything creative. And then it ends with a stupid recurring character…particularly a character who had not much of a presence in the book to begin with.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Of course, any religious treasure from Christ’s life is unlikely to be worth anything other than for religious reasons. This is like the Indiana Jones movie in which he has to figure out which of various grails is the Holy Grail. Naturally, it isn’t any valuable piece of metal (least of all gold); it’s an ordinary (albeit large) wooden cup.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Perhaps notwithstanding lasers, what use is a ruby? What use is an emerald? We’ve found plenty of industrial uses for silver and gold. But before then, what use were they but the value people invested them with?

            Yes, Indy chose wisely.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              As I recall, mirrors originally were silvered glass, or maybe just silver. Because silver is associated with the sacred, this means vampires cannot see themselves in mirrors (and later, don’t show up on photographs because silver nitrate is involved).

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              I figure jewelry had two basic purposes in the old days, 1) to show off wealth, 2) to ward off bad luck and evil spirits. Men give certain characteristics to all sorts of things. Who knows what characteristics were attributed to rubies, diamonds, emeralds and other precious stones.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                Isn’t it a marvel, Mr. Kung, when the most complex and marvelous machine we know of is dismissed as “just a lump of cells” but we assign so much value to, say, “a lump of carbon atoms”?

                Was there any practical use for diamonds before being used as an abrasive (diamond drills, for example)? They were rare and beautiful. And what gave them their value before their manufacturing uses was mankind’s never-ending need to make a show of one’s wealth, for you can’t eat diamonds.

                As for warding off evil spirits, I’ve read too much Sherlock Holmes to believe in that. More often than not (at least in faction), rare jewels brought misery.

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            any religious treasure from Christ’s life is unlikely to be worth anything other than for religious reasons.

            I not sure what that means. Why did the latest Da Vinci painting, (of Christ) sell for something around US$400 million?

            Not believing in Marx’s work-theory of value, I believe any object has the value one would pay for it. That is determined, generally, by supply and demand. That being the case, The Holy Grail, would be worth billions i.e. basically priceless, if one could prove it was genuine. The proof that it still holds a huge fascination for people is shown by the fact that they are still making movies about it, some 2000 years after it was used.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              It was a Timothy platitude. 😀 “Steak and onions is unlikely to be worth anything other than for gastronomic reasons.” But I’m not judging. I’m just pulling his platitudinal leg.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              Actually, we don’t seem to disagree here. My point was that the Holy Grail would be virtually worthless in terms of its materials, as Indiana Jones correctly guessed. But it would have great value as a religious artifact.

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