May 18


The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands – Review by Gregory Taylor

the blackthorn keySecret Codes, Secret Societies, Secret Passages…

and Blowing Stuff Up


I went through a serious secret-code phase when I was a kid. I read books about how to create and crack codes. I tried to rope my friends, my little sister, even my teachers, into trading messages with me using a variety of secret strategies. I’m guessing some of you had a similar phase. To be honest, I never completely outgrew my fascination with codes.

That’s just one of the reasons I love The Blackthorn Key so much. On the day before his fourteenth birthday in 1665 London, apothecary’s apprentice Christopher Rowe decides to build a cannon. His master, Benedict Blackthorn, has written his recipe for gunpowder in code, so rivals – and naughty apprentices – can’t decipher it. But Christopher has cracked the code, and naturally wants to try it out. He convinces his best friend, Tom, to help him with the experiment. Just as Tom (and we) might expect, things go disastrously wrong.

Secret codes are sprinkled throughout The Blackthorn Key. Apothecaries’ secret recipes, secret messages between co-conspirators, and twisty riddles that, when solved, reveal clues to unsolved mysteries – this book is overflowing with cool codes and the puzzling fun of figuring them out along with Christopher.


Did you ever have a secret club when you were a kid? I remember a few times when my friends and I would come up with a great name for our club, and maybe a password, slogan, or secret handshake. Our mission? That was usually fuzzy, at best.

The Blackthorn Key is filled with special groups and their intrigues. First we get the close-knit world of 17th century apothecaries and their apprentices, filled with fascinating medicinal lore, herbal remedies, and superstitions. But then we also find out about a mysterious secret society that’s killing off London’s apothecaries one by one! Christopher’s very livelihood may depend on him unmasking the leaders of this malevolent cult, and as he gets closer to the truth, he realizes they may after much bigger targets.


Like all readers, you probably had those dreams where some ordinary cabinet or wardrobe creaked open to reveal an undiscovered place. Every time my family moved into a new house I was convinced I would find a secret passageway, a hidden room behind a bookcase, a secret latch that would open up unknown hatches and hidey-holes.

By the climax of The Blackthorn Key, Christopher must use stealth and wits to make his way through hidden passages, booby-trapped doorways, and secret rooms to solve the mysteries swirling at the center of his world.


Yes, this novel has secret codes, secret societies, and secret passages – all stuff I love. And it also has lots of explosions. We all thrill at the episodes of Mythbusters where they blow stuff up, right? The Blackthorn Key delivers here, too. Between the volatile ingredients in an apothecary’s shop and a possible plot to undermine the monarchy, there are plenty of big booms in this book.


Kevin Sands has written a debut novel that’s full of mystery, suspense, humor, thrilling chase scenes, terrifying villains, and surprising twists. Rich historical details about London life, politics, and period remedies are woven into a fast-paced mystery adventure in ways that enhance the story rather than slowing it down. Whether it’s a chamber pot being emptied from an upstairs window or how to convert pigeon poop into gunpowder, all the details simply add to the delight.

But it’s the spunky, loyal, clever protagonist that shines brightest throughout The Blackthorn Key. Time and again, Christopher musters all his knowledge, skills, and talent to survive threats and solve mysteries, to decide what is right and who to trust. (Bonus: Isaac the Bookseller is a great ally during Christopher’s difficulties. Yay for trusty booksellers!)

Early in the novel, Master Benedict waves a hand at the herbs, oils, and minerals in his shop and tells young Christopher that these are the tools of their trade. He continues: “What you must always remember is that they are only that: tools. They can heal, or they can kill. It’s never the tool itself that decides. It’s the hands—and the heart—of the one who wields it.”

Whether it’s cracking secret codes and secret recipes, solving puzzles to open secret passages, uncovering secret societies with evil intentions, or even blowing things up, Christopher comes through every time.


The Blackthorn Key tapped into so many things that fascinated me as a kid, and bundled them into a terrific historical romp that held me rapt, start to finish. Here’s one thing that isn’t a secret: I loved The Blackthorn Key and I think you will, too.



Gregory Taylor is a librarian and former English teacher at Hillside Junior High School in Boise, Idaho. He loves Shakespeare, Disneyland, and talking about YA Lit.