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Following a series of murders, an apothecary’s apprentice must solve puzzles and decipher codes in pursuit of a secret that could destroy the world in this “spectacular debut” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).

“Tell no one what I’ve given you.”

Until he got that cryptic warning, Christopher Rowe was happy, learning how to solve complex codes and puzzles and creating powerful medicines, potions, and weapons as an apprentice to Master Benedict Blackthorn—with maybe an explosion or two along the way.

But when a mysterious cult begins to prey on London’s apothecaries, the trail of murders grows closer and closer to Blackthorn’s shop. With time running out, Christopher must use every skill he’s learned to discover the key to a terrible secret with the power to tear the world apart.

In his stunning debut novel, Kevin Sands brings readers on a heart-stopping adventure rich with suspense, mystery, and unforgettable characters.

A Reading Group Guide to

The Blackthorn Key

By Kevin Sands


Book Description

In 1665 London, Master Benedict, a kind apothecary, takes Christopher Rowe on as an apprentice, rescuing him from orphanage life. Christopher loves his work of concocting medicines and deciphering codes. But when his safe life is shattered by a string of murders, Christopher must use his new knowledge to track down the dangerous Cult of the Archangel. Except for his friend Tom, it’s hard to tell who’s an ally and who’s an enemy. As Christopher races to uncover secret passages and hidden crypts, and tries to solve urgent puzzles, the future of England is at stake—and so is Christopher’s life.

Prereading Questions           

What does it mean to have a home? What does it mean to “bring aid” to others?

Discussion Questions


1. London provides an exciting backdrop for the story. Find places where the author conveys the sounds, smells, and sights of the city. What words and phrases appeal to the reader’s senses to bring the setting alive?

2. Why is the apothecaries’ motto “I am called throughout the world the bringer of aid”? Describe the work of an apothecary. How is the job related to medicine and science? How is it related to cooking? 

3. A lot of the action takes place in Master Blackthorn’s shop and workshop. Describe the shop, workshop, and tools, pointing to specific passages in the text. How are the shop and workshop similar to places, including businesses, in the modern world?


4. Christopher returns again and again to the importance of home in his life. Discuss why it matters to him and what role his home with Master Benedict plays in the story. How does the idea of home matter at the conclusion of the book? 

5. As the story progresses, we learn that Master Benedict and his friends are pursuing powerful knowledge. What is their ultimate goal? How do they try to reach that goal? Do you consider it a worthy goal?

6. Loyalty and disloyalty are themes explored in terms of relationships, professions, and country. Discuss the main characters, their loyalties, and how they show them. What role does disloyalty play in the plot? Is it always wrong to be disloyal to one’s government?


7. In a short amount of time, Christopher’s courage and ingenuity are tested by a series of unexpected events. Give examples of obstacles he faces and how he deals with them. What do his actions and choices show about his character? Do you admire Christopher?

8. Tom is a tried-and-true friend to Christopher from beginning to end. Describe his personality, his home life, and how he interacts with Christopher. Compare and contrast their characters. Cite scenes in the book where Tom shows his friendship and courage.

9. How does Master Benedict change Christopher’s life? Talk about what you consider the three most important things that he does for Christopher. Describe what kind of person Master Benedict is.

10. Why was Christopher chosen to be an apothecary’s apprentice? Describe his work for Master Benedict, and how Benedict tests him. What character traits make Christopher good at his work?

11. It takes Christopher time to figure out who the real villains are. Describe characters who seem like they might be the wrongdoers and those who really are. What would the story be like without villains?

Plot and Structure

12. Reread “A Warning,” which opens the book and the one page after the first section title. What do they foreshadow about the story? How do they set the tone? Discuss why the author chose to include them before the first chapter.

13. The chapters are divided into large sections. Discuss how those sections are labeled and how each label relates to the chapters that follow. How many days does the main action take? What happens in the “Spring’s End” section? Why does the author structure the chapters this way?

14. While Christopher is trying to uncover the truth of what’s happening, a lot of people are hunting for him. How does Christopher use his skills as an apothecary to evade capture? How does he use them to fight the villains? How do those skills help him find Master Benedict’s secret and understand its purpose?

15. Codes and symbols appear throughout the book. Christopher declares that when he has his own shop, “I’m putting everything in code.” Why does Master Benedict use codes? Give examples where codes and symbols are important in the plot.

16. Christopher’s feelings are hurt in Chapter 8 when Master Benedict hits him, calls him “useless,” and sends him on an errand. What does Christopher realize later about those actions?

Language and Point of View

17. What impact does it have on the reader that Christopher tells his own story? How would the story have been different with a third-person narrator? Discuss the effect on the reader when Christopher asks questions in the text.

18. Similes make actions and objects more vivid through imagery. Analyze the comparisons used in the similes below and others from the book. Which ones draw from the time and place of the story? Which are more general?

like a sack of wheat

like being a prisoner in the Tower dungeon

as if it were Excalibur

recoiled like he’d been shot with a musket

like a thunderclap

twisted like a map of Hell

to speak Latin like Julius Caesar

echoed like a hammer

louder than carriage wheels on cobbles

grew like trees

like a dog herding sheep

keening like a banshee



Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor

Many jobs besides apothecary appear in The Blackthorn Key. Some are listed below. Have pairs of students research one of the jobs and create a description and poster for it. If the job still exists today, the description should emphasize aspects of it associated with the past such as how books were printed then. Hold an Old-Time Job Fair where students display their posters and answer questions about the job.
















Rag-and-bone man




Secret Messages

Have students write two sentences about the book, one that describes it briefly and one with their opinion of it. Have them use the code from The Blackthorn Key to turn their two sentences into a secret message. They can then trade coded messages with a fellow student and each decode the sentences, checking their answers against the originals. For a more advanced activity, have students try to create their own code, based on the general principle in The Blackthorn Key. For example, use P03 instead of M08, or have the numbers run backward instead of forward. Encourage your students to be creative!

The King and the Puritans

The political situation of the Puritans turns out to be significant to events in the novel. Have students research England in the mid-1600s, especially the 1660s, to better understand the story. Working in pairs or individually, students should use at least one print and one Internet resource to write a short paper that explains the Restoration, Oliver Cromwell, the Puritans, and Oak Apple Day, and briefly addresses how they are part of the plot. As a class, have students share what they have learned.



Guide written by Kathleen Odean, a former school librarian and Chair of the 2002 Newbery Award Committee. She gives professional development workshops on books for young people and is the author of Great Books for Girls and Great Books about Things Kids Love.

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.


Photograph © Thomas Zitnansky

Since escaping from university with a pair of degrees in theoretical physics, Kevin Sands has worked as a researcher, a business consultant, and a teacher. He lives in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of the award-winning and bestselling Blackthorn Key series.

"Captivating! A masterful page-turner brimming with secrets, traps, friendship, intrigue, pigeons, potions, loyalty, and explosions. Kevin Sands has created an engaging, kind-hearted, and humorous young hero in apothecary's apprentice Christopher Rowe. This thrilling adventure will keep you hooked."

– Ingrid Law, Newbery Honor and NYT bestselling author of Savvy

"Magic, adventure, and things that go boom--I love this book."

– Eoin Colfer, author of the bestselling Artemis Fowl series

"First-time novelist Sands has written an exciting and self-assured tale of alchemy and dark secrets . . . Sands adeptly balances the novel’s darker turns with moments of levity and humor, and fills the book with nicely detailed characters and historical background—plus lots of explosions. It’s a story that should have broad appeal, while especially intriguing readers with an existing interest in chemistry, history, and decoding puzzles."

– Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW

"A spectacular debut."

– Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

An auspicious debut middle grade novel. Set in the 1600s, the story revolves around Christopher Rowe, the apprentice to a Master Apothecary. After losing his master, Christopher begins to unravel a series of complex codes that his master had, unbeknownst to Chris, been preparing him to solve all along. The more that the protagonist uncovers, the more he finds himself in danger, along with his loyal-to-a-fault best friend. The story is well paced, managing not only to keep readers hooked, but also second guessing everything they think they know. Sands integrates a series of fun and interesting riddles and codes with chemistry concepts—no easy feat. The ending is dynamic and rewarding, with just the right blend of the fantastical and realistic. One of the true triumphs is the author’s ability to create a character who feels accurate for the time period, while also displaying a modern sensibility that will keep readers engaged. The action does get intense, but would still be appropriate for upper elementary school students. VERDICT This is an excellent story for readers who enjoy puzzles, action, and fantasy; keep an eye out for future installments

– School Library Journal STARRED REVIEW

"An auspicious debut middle grade novel . . . The story is well paced, managing not only to keep readers hooked, but also second guessing everything they think they know. Sands integrates a series of fun and interesting riddles and codes with chemistry concepts—no easy feat. The ending is dynamic and rewarding, with just the right blend of the fantastical and realistic. One of the true triumphs is the author’s ability to create a character who feels accurate for the time period, while also displaying a modern sensibility that will keep readers engaged . . . VERDICT This is an excellent story for readers who enjoy puzzles, action, and fantasy; keep an eye out for future installments."

– School Library Journal STARRED REVIEW

"An inspired blend of action, adventure, science, history, and humor, filled with fascinating facts, clever codes, and wonderful characters."

– Stuart Gibbs, bestsellling author of the Spy School series

  • ALA Notable Children's Books
  • Keystone to Reading Book Award Reading List (PA)
  • Kansas NEA Reading Circle List Junior Title
  • Oregon Battle of the Books List
  • Louisiana Young Readers' Choice Award Nominee
  • Grand Canyon Reader Award Nominee (AZ)
  • Beehive Award Master List (UT)
  • Maine Student Book Award Reading List
  • Great Stone Face Book Award Nominee (NH)
  • Capital Choices Noteworthy Books for Children's and Teens (DC)
  • Texas Lone Star Reading List
  • Rebecca Caudill Young Readers' Book Award Master List (IL)
  • Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award Master List (VT)
  • Edgar Allan Poe Award (Finalist)
  • North Carolina Children's Book Award Nominee
  • Cybils Award
  • Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year Selection Title
  • MSTA Reading Circle List
  • Tome Society It List
  • Wisconsin State Reading Association's Reading List
  • Manitoba Young Readers' Choice Award Finalist
  • A Best Book for Kids & Teens
  • Heather's Pick - Children
  • Forest of Reading Silver Birch Fiction Finalist
  • Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Finalist
  • Recommended Canadian Reads for Children - Junior Fiction
  • Rocky Mountain Book Award Finalist
  • Canadian Children's Book Centre Violet Downey Book Award Winner
  • Arthur Ellis Best YA Crime Novel Finalist
  • CCBC John Spray Mystery Award Winner
  • Red Cedar Book Award Winner

More books from this author: Kevin Sands

More books in this series: The Blackthorn Key