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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10 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.

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