What Hooked Me? The Blackthorn Key by Author Kevin Sands

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In this month’s blog, the WWAT Crew discuss what it was that hooked us in the middle-grade book, The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands.

John: Puzzles, codes, and mysteries

Oh My! If you love these things (and who doesn’t), you will love The Blackthorn Key. I knew I wasn’t alone since many of the reviews left at Goodreads and Amazon also mentioned how much readers enjoyed that part of the plot. Not much of a spoiler, but in the story, our young hero, Christopher Rowe, must solve a series of science-related puzzles in order to discover the final secret and defeat the baddies. I was most impressed with how the puzzles were relevant to the history and time period. That sneaky Kevin Sands, not only did he entertain me, but he taught me some things.

It was actually the puzzle-loving reviews that drew me to The Blackthorn Key. One of my works-in-progress deals with a puzzle-solving twelve-year old, and I wanted to see how Mr. Sands did it. I wasn’t disappointed.

If you love puzzles and specifically, secret codes, you might check out Mysterious Messages: A History of Codes and Ciphers by Gary Blackwood. It’s a fascinating book that discusses how people throughout history have created and solved coded messages for all manner of different reasons.

Jess: Science

        The Blackthorn Key takes place in an apothecary (historic chemistry) and in the opening scene the main character, Christopher and his best friend Tom make gun powder and a cannon. Why is science such a hook for me? I used to teach high school chemistry and I always believed I was teaching students first, then chemistry. Not everyone was going to grow up and play with fire, solutions, and explosions like me (I will argue chemistry is still a part of everyone’s life). I believed along with the concepts it was my job to inspire curiosity, problem solving, exploration and innovation. I searched for books such as this to recommend to my students and Neil Gaiman sums up why beautifully in his ‘Face facts: we need fiction’ article found in The Guardian (

        “I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. SF had been disapproved of for a long time. At one point, I took a top official aside and asked him what had changed? “It’s simple,” he told me. “the Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So, they sent a delegation to the U.S., to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.” – Neil Gaiman

Linda: Setting

The one aspect of The Blackthorn Key that sucked me in was the settings. Kevin Sands’ masterful use of setting took me on a visceral journey through an old English town. First, we are set in the middle of an apothecary shop. The visuals of taxidermy animals and the smell of ingredients (gunpowder) made the shop come to life. I imagined myself as an apprentice, working for along side of Christopher and Master Blackthorn.

The second setting that really brought the world to life was in the secret laboratory. What’s more exciting than discovering secret passageways beneath a creepy mausoleum? I imagined a mad scientist’s lab with potions and tonics. Sands elevated science into the magic of sorcerers. I couldn’t put the book down.

After I finished reading The Blackthorn Key, I recommended it to my son. He read it in a matter of hours and begged me to pick up the sequel, which I did. Kevin Sands can add two more fans to his readers list.

Megan: Historical Aspect

I am a sucker for history. Yep. I said it. You put the word “historical” somewhere in the genre description of a book, and I’m already perking my ears. But I’m picky about it too. Not only do some time periods have more draw for me than others, but I also want to make sure the author isn’t just using the setting as a gimmick. I want to have my cake and eat it too, dang it.

That’s what really nailed it for me in The Blackthorn Key. I mean, yes. The characters and plot were phenomenally executed. Loved it, loved them, loved it all. But for me, an English history buff above all else, finding my way into Restoration England in 1665 got me all jumping up and down inside. Seeing it through main character Christopher Rowe’s eyes? The best thing ever. How incredible to imagine life at such a time, and Sands does it with exceptional ease. He doesn’t bog us down with “thou” and “ye.” He uses natural dialogue that is accessible to today’s audience without taking us out of the setting of the story. Also, the study of history can sometimes remove us from the humanity of historical characters, and Sands does an even better job convincing me that teen Christopher Rowe is just as mischievous, but golden-hearted, as any good-natured young boy these days. The added touch of the apothecary world just makes the whole thing a grand slam (baseball terminology to describe a book set in 1665? Why not?). So, if you want to get my attention, pick an interesting historical context for your setting. Just remember, do it right, or don’t do it at all.  

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