WARNING: extremely positive. Like, gushing level. May contain spoilers.
You know how every once in a while you come across a book that makes you grateful that you have learned to read? This is the experience I had with The Blackthorn Key, and double that with its sequel – Mark of the Plague.
The Blackthorn Key Adventure (I’m not sure whether this is the official title of the series, but I saw it mentioned on the cover of Mark of the Plague) are, in a word, extremely refreshing books. The author has managed to take such a well-known and probably overused time period and and turn it absolutely fascinating – all the while assisted by the fact that he has obviously done his research. But more than that, the characters don’t feel forced into the time period, which in itself doesn’t feel to be just used for aesthetic; all of the ideas are skillfully put together in harmony like pieces of a puzzle.
Segue into my next point – the puzzles! I have read a number of puzzle based books which emphasized the concept so much that I would honestly just get tired and confused. The Blackthorn Key once again manages to merge the idea of puzzles and puzzle solving so well into the world that you barely even notice (and more importantly, you don’t feel left out of the characters’ conversation when it comes to the solutions). None of the characters’ interactions with said puzzles seems unnatural or forced – for example the contrast between the way Christopher and his friend Tom view the puzzles emphasizes on their different personality aspects and worldview in a way that just compliments the rest of the narrative.
The prose is absolutely wonderful: it doesn’t take itself too seriously or try to be dark just for the sake of being Edgy; the humor that’s peppered carefully throughout the narrative is tasteful and incredibly entertaining (and laugh-out-loud!), but most of all Kevin Sands also knows when to be serious. The dialogue is extremely engaging without trying too hard, the expositions are solid, the pacing is steady, the narration is stable and smooth, and makes the characterization very clear. You are never left wondering about anyone’s intentions unless the author wanted you to – and in those cases, it is absolutely clear that any mystery surrounding anything or anyone was intentional, and leaves you wanting for more rather than, once again, feeling as if you’ve been left out of the loop and are simply eavesdropping at the door.
Another extremely positive point that I must simply mention is that the appearance of a female character in Mark of the Plague did in no way introduce romance into the series right away. I have great respect for the author for not taking that step quite yet (in a way, I’m hoping that Sally remains outside of romance even if Chris and Tom don’t). Which brings me to my next point! The characters! Oh God, the characters! It has been a while since I have been so enamored with characters! They’re fresh, interesting, sympathetic and different. You can almost immediately tell who says what in dialogues even if the speaker isn’t indicated clearly, which means they are extremely solid. The relationships each of them have with other people and with themselves is so well-explored and clear that you definitely can’t help but love even the villains. Not to mention that none of them are really that big a stereotypes as you might expect, the biggest surprise for me being Lord Ashcombe, whom, quite frankly, I was expecting to find strict beyond reason and righteous to a fault. The emotional aspects of the everyone’s struggles are also handled wonderfully and show very well the meaning of cause-and-consequence. This makes none of the characters’ actions feel illogical (even emotionally so) or misplaced at any point.
Quite frankly, I have not found a single sentence, word or comment that was misplaced in the entirety of both books. Also, judging by a couple of brief e-mails I exchanged with him, Kevin Sands himself seems to be a rather cool guy. Bonus points!
Conclusion: my adoration for this series knows no bounds. I can’t wait for the next installment. I have one extremely minor nitpick, but I’ve chosen not to name it in the review itself, as it is definitely just a personal annoyance rather than criticism.
Would I recommend: yes. Absolutely. Go throw your money at them now. Please.