The Blackthorn Key, Book 1

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The Blackthorn Key, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Popular with kids
Puzzles, explosions in thrilling 1600s mystery adventure.

Parents say

age 10+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 11+
Based on 10 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Author Sands takes the occasional anachronistic liberty (mostly in using present-day language to describe a situation in 17th-century London: teens "aging out" of an orphanage), but he does it for a good cause, imparting all manner of cool, arcane knowledge in the course of a thrilling tale. Readers will learn a lot about the era of Charles II, from political intrigue to the fact that a chamber pot was likely to be dumped on one's head from any window. Fans of codes and languages will be in heaven with ciphers and Latin. Budding chemists ditto with numerous experiments, many of which parents might want to review first, as they involve explosives.

Positive Messages

Along with youthful hijinks involving explosives and rotten fruit, offers strong messages about courage, kindness, friendship, loyalty, living up to your responsibilities, problem-solving skills, and persistence. Also, Christopher's love for learning is pretty contagious.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Offsetting some murderous villains bent on world domination are brave, resourceful, kind-hearted Christopher and his best friend, Tom -- along with Tom's bevy of little sisters, some unlikely adults, and a speckled pigeon named Bridget, all of whom pitch in. An adult says to Tom, "Benedict once mentioned that his apprentice had a friend so loyal that no matter what ludicrous scheme the boy concocted, Thomas Bailey would be there, right beside him." In their quest to find Master Benedict's killer, the boys do various things that, as Christopher notes, are capital offenses -- such as stealing back their own property.


Christopher's master and other apothecaries are gruesomely murdered, with brief gory descriptions. Christopher often mentions the frequent beatings he received in the orphanage, and various characters hit him; Tom's father regularly beats him. There's some hand-to-hand fighting, some of it deadly. A villain tortures a character by pouring acid on him. Explosives, from experiments with gunpowder to a potentially world-changing weapon, are important to the story; they're sometimes comical and sometimes lethal. The 17th-century world in which many things are capital offenses and executions are public entertainment imparts additional danger, as does an apparent plot by a secret society to overthrow the king.


In the wake of an experiment gone awry, Christopher longs for "Blackthorn's Private-Parts Pain Poultice." Plentiful references to pee and poop, both as a regular landscape feature in plumbing-free London and as an ingredient in the apothecary's wares.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Drunken adults are sometimes part of the atmosphere.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Blackthorn Key, the opener of a new series by brilliant first-time author Kevin Sands, is an irresistible mix of history (it's set in the England of Charles II), science, staunch friendship, swashbuckling thrills, world saving, and comic misadventure. Besides deadly political intrigue of the day, the plot involves multiple murders, some with brief gory detail; hand-to-hand combat; and a scene in which a villain tortures the protagonist by pouring acid on his skin. Expect many references to pee and poop, often as ingredients in chemical compounds or part of the pre-plumbing, 17th-century local scenery. Heads up: Instructions for making gunpowder and other explosives are part of the story.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Kid, 9 years old April 15, 2017
This is the second best book (after the second) that I've read in 2016 and 2017 so far! Really violent, but so inspiring, puzzling, fun to read, educationa... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byReaderrr December 4, 2020

Very good

This is a very good book and it really has a strong message throughout the reading. It doesn't take very long and isn't very tough to read. Although,... Continue reading

What's the story?

It's the spring of 1665, and Charles II is on the throne, though none too securely. Closer to home for 14-year-old apprentice Christopher Rowe is the fact that "in the past four months, five men had been butchered in their homes. Each of them had been tied up, tortured, then slit open at the stomach and left to bleed to death."  Then his beloved master, apothecary Benedict Blackthorn, becomes the latest victim, leaving Christopher a note in code inscribed "nemini dixeris" ("tell no one" in Latin). Soon Christopher and his best friend Tom are trying to decipher THE BLACKTHORN KEY, solve the murders, and stay alive as they unearth a plot that threatens not only the king but the entire world.

Is it any good?

First-time author Kevin Sands delivers irresistible characters, cool knowledge, intrigue, and lots of explosions as a 17th-century apprentice tries to solve his master's murder. Over the course of this exciting page-turner, readers will learn quite a bit about day-to-day life in 17th-century London, secret messages in code and Latin, and chemistry. Purists might quibble about the occasional anachronism, such as referring to characters "aging out" of an orphanage, but it's for a good cause: making a lot of potentially forbidding knowledge not only accessible but also spellbinding.

Parents be warned: There are definite "kids, don't try this at home" moments. It's nothing they can't find on the Web any day, but The Blackthorn Key includes detailed recipes for explosives, particularly gunpowder and something like nitroglycerin. Some of the compounds are described with archaic names such as "aqua fortis" (nitric acid).

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about stories of kids living in past times. What's the appeal for readers of today? Do you have any favorites?

  • Do you think life has improved for kids and teens today compared with the experiences of Christopher and his friends? Is there anything about their time you'd like to check out yourself if you had the chance?

  • What did you know about Oliver Cromwell and his overthrow of the king? Does this story make you want to learn more about that era?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love adventure and historical fiction

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