This book was initially recommended to me by my wonderful partner who is writing her own middle grade novel. Now as my previous reviews as well as the book I’ve written show, I normally write and read Young Adult fantasy and science fiction novels so I wasn’t sure if I’d love this book as much as she did. I can happily say that The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands took me by surprise how much I loved it.
We see the story unfold through Christopher Rowe’s eyes and its quite wonderful seeing how he reacts to the news all around him. We see him slowly change from a soft spoken young man to someone who is willing to take action and do what he has to with less hesitation. There’s still some hesitation but it makes him feel so much more believable. He’s a very sympathetic character and I think that’s well established as the story slowly explains his past and current life through the plot. It lets the reader get a clear idea of who he is but more importantly it builds a connection to the character. The supporting cast of characters were also such a delight. Each of them are static characters but they’re static characters done right that help to flesh out and develop the main character. Tom was easily one of my favorite characters I’ve read about in the past few months.
Set in the 1600s, the world is created with what feels like proper research to get the town really feeling like a 1600s English town. There are even a few pages at the end discussing the historical accuracy of the calendar system at the time. It made me, as a History nerd, super happy to read about. But History aside, the world feels pretty well developed in terms of how people react to others of status as they would have at the time. The Master and the Apprentice relationship is the core of how Christopher interacts with many of the other characters and seeing how those same Masters have to pay respect to a representative of the king establishes a world hierarchy that Christopher has to work around. The world is also quite understandably dark not only in how Christopher remarks on how life is for an orphan is but also in how some of the characters are treated. There’s one specific example that had me shaking truth be told and it’s kept in the background as though it’s a normal reality of the time (which historically it would have been sadly).
For a middle grade novel, the story is very heavy and quite dark. The story’s pacing is fantastic and I found myself glued to the book reading into the wee hours of the morning. There is a significant portion of the book that’s dedicated to setting up the world and also setting up the plot before the inciting incident even occurs. Key points in the plot are very natural as they’re set up early in the story so that when they happen, the reader isn’t taken by surprise or confused as to why it happened. There were so many examples of this it’s hard to even pick one to use as an example, but how Madapple is set up was amazing.
The writing flows very smoothly and it helps with the pacing as there’s no point that’s bogged down with a wall of text or exposition dumping that can often hurt the flow of the book. One of the most appreciable qualities of the writing was how great of a job it did to give us an insight into the workings of Christopher Rowe’s mind. I mean this makes sense as a first person narrative tale, but it’s also used to show the slow evolution of Christopher from a somewhat innocent childish view (for the time period, it’s actually not that innocent) to a more mature and grounded mindset as it started to set in how the world worked.
What Writers can learn from the book.
I’ve always felt that a good murder mystery is one of the hardest stories to write. It takes a lot of careful planning and consideration to make each reveal feel well deserved and have a lasting impact on the reader. This story feels like a perfect example of how you can do that as a writer. There were quite a few times I actually gasped or said “oh my god!” as I was reading. A lot of that was due to proper set up and anticipation established early on. In a way it can be described as a great example of show don’t tell when the reader is just as surprised and shocked as the character.
This is also a great example of how to develop a sympathetic character that the reader can relate to and also care about. I genuinely worried about both Christopher and Tom as the two boys tried to uncover the truth about the cult and the murders surrounding them. Even the side characters that barely have any screen time felt wonderful and lovable. And bless his heart did I love Benedict Blackthorn himself.
I can honestly say I was surprised how much I loved this book. Everything about it made for an adventurous tale I couldn’t put down. I have to recommend this to anyone who loves well written murder mysteries.