Kevin Sands’ The Blackthorn Key, starts with the words “Let’s build a canon.” A promising beginning. One that had me reading the paperback of this book—newly out—as I walked it back to its place in the store. Then when I got home I remembered that I had a sample of the book, and read the first two chapters through, and debated more seriously still purchasing the paperback.
Then I went on a road trip, and having recently been reintroduced to audiobooks by a friend who started me on Huck Finn, I decided to go to the local library and see what audiobooks I might be able to bring with me to make the hours pass—and I found this book. The first leg of my trip was 4 hours to the first stop and another 6 hours to the second stop. I spent a good bit of that time (the whole recording is 7 hours and 21 minutes) in Restoration London with an apothecary’s apprentice and his best friend, the baker’s son, Tom.
When I’d reached my first stop, I was raved to the friend that I visited about the book that I was listening to, telling her to go and buy the thing, even though I was only maybe two or three hours into the story. Getting into the car when we had to part ways was not as hard because I knew that Chris, Tom, and the mystery into which they’d been thrust were waiting for me.
By the time that I arrived at my final destination, I was raving to my mother, telling her about the whirlwind adventure I’d just been on, and how the dark back roads of Pennsylvania hadn’t seemed so long or so lonely with this book for company.
The codes and charts and solved puzzles were harder to understand in audio form, but that was my one rub with the reading itself. Lines like
is equally lengthy and confusing. Mind, the printing of the chart in this Find Your Hero Chapter Sampler is actually more confusing for its set up than was Panthaki’s reading (A 22, B 23, C 24, etc. is how it was read in the recording), but that may have been fixed in the final layout.
Otherwise, it took me maybe only a few minutes to be on board with Ray Panthaki, a London-born, British actor (producer, writer, director, Renaissance man), as a narrator, who was subtle about the voices that he gave the characters, for the most part, but who did provide me with voices, which helped to liven the dialogue I’m sure and also helped to keep straight the various characters when dialogue tags were not something I could see for myself. No one seemed overblown and no one stood out unduly from the crowd, which is, I feel, one danger in narrating with voices.
I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, and this story is set a little late in history for me to gravitate towards it (I tend to say—and it’s not entirely a joke—that my knowledge of history ends right around 1600), but there was plenty to keep me entertained and engaged, sitting—especially those last few hours as the mystery raced towards its reveal—on the edge of my seat and clinging to the wheel in front of me: action, mystery, politics, heart-wringing circumstances inflicted onto characters that I grew fairly quickly to care about, magic (or science; here apothecary, potions-maker, woodswitch, and alchemist are all only so many steps from one another—and that is all addressed in the text), the uplifting story of an orphan escaping abuse and poverty to find love and riches and purpose, loyal friends, children getting the better of adults…. Now that I’m listing them I see that those are a lot of the same elements that make Harry Potter so enjoyable.
And I know from working in a bookstore and trying to help customers find books to suit school assignments how difficult it is to find historical fiction—or mystery for that matter—for that 8-12 range. I am going to hope that most teachers will accept this as historical fiction. Certainly I learned some about the time.
My one reserve about the text itself is that Sands doesn’t shy from gore or cruelty or torture. That’s fine but maybe not for the youngest of ears. In Barnes & Noble, this book lives in a section marked for ages 7-12. The audiobook warns that it’s recommended for ages 10-14. I know some 10 year olds who would be squigged out by some of the more gruesome injuries inflicted on the characters. Parents, use caution. As always, I recommend reading the book before or with your child. Know what they’ll be able to handle, and be ready to talk to them if they need reassurance or have questions.
Sands, Kevin. The Blackthorn Key. 2015. Narr. Ray Panthaki. Compact discs. Simon & Schuster Audio, 2015.
This review is not endorsed by Kevin Sands, Ray Panthaki, Simon & Schuster, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.