Title: The Blackthorn Key
Author: Kevin Sands
Christopher Rowe–once-orphan, now alchemist’s apprentice–had a happy life with his master, even if his days were filled with study and work. (The explosions were a regrettable side effect of the combination of bold curiosity and a disregard for certain rules.) But someone is targeting alchemists in a series of brutal murders. When Christopher finds himself closer than he ever wanted to be to the scene of the crime, he has two goals: find the killers. And get out alive.
This is a fun bit of historical fiction. Set in England in 1665, it follows young Christopher through the perils and wonder of being an alchemist, who at the time functioned a bit like a scientist, doctor, researcher, cryptographer, and businessman all at once. I liked how the book underlines the sheer amount of study and work it took Christopher to get where he is; too often it’s easy for the the main character to stumble into the right answer. That can be fun too, but it’s nice to see people who earned their place living up to their full potential.
The book offers a lot of puzzles and codes, even spelling them out for the enterprising reader who would like to take a crack at it himself before reading onward. And the murders, as they unfold, offer another layer of mystery, because it’s not just about who, but why. Also things explode or otherwise get set on fire quite a lot, which is great fun, but tempered with the reality that when things go boom sometimes people get hurt. Or have the potential to be hurt.
I also liked Tom’s friendship with Christopher. This is a friendship that weathers some pretty bad events, and Tom’s wise enough to know what’s really needed when Christopher’s cleverness might otherwise have left him in a very bad place.
Overall it’s a gripping read, and I would recommend it easily.