The Blackthorne Key (2015), by Kevin Sands

I was discussing Kevin Sand’s The Blackthorne Key, which won the John Spray Mystery Award for 2016, with a friend, who thought that it was a little bit predictable. No (she thought a bit about it)… it was just that perhaps the protagonist, Christopher, should have figured things out more quickly, given his purported intelligence. I had to ponder why I didn’t have this same criticism, because when she pointed out some examples, her position made sense. But I didn’t have that response: I was so immersed in the novel, so convinced by the characters and intrigued by the plot, that no criticisms had the space to rear their ugly heads. In teaching rhetoric, I tell my students: “If as an author you make a mistake, and your reader notices, you will have lost them. So don’t make a mistake.” As far as I could tell as I read The Blackthorne Key, Kevin Sands makes no mistakes: I was enthralled from start to finish.

Sands really does understand his setting. Christopher, his friend Tom, even his master Benedict Blackthorne and the other apothecaries, do not sport modern sensibilities lurking beneath the narrative trappings of the seventeenth century; their characters are, rather, consistent with a world in which the boundaries between science and faith and magic are blurred. Christopher, for all his innate intelligence, is still a young boy at the same time as he approaches manhood: his youthful exuberance hatches the (illegal but oh-so-much-fun) plan to build a cannon; his intelligence gives him the means to do so; his lack of experience results in his blowing up the stuffed bear in his master’s apothecary shop. By the end of the novel, though, as he is thrust into the adult world, he has gained a maturity far beyond either his earlier self or the middle-school readers the novel is aimed at.

In the case of the bear, as throughout the novel, Sands creates a balance between authenticity and reality: Christopher is not beaten for his exploits, but we are let know in no uncertain terms that others in his position would have been. Benedict Blackthorne is presented as a reasonable, intelligent master, who values Christopher’s sharp mind, even as he strictly controls his activities. As the novel progresses, though, and Christopher and Tom are pulled into the shady dealings of the apothecaries’ guild, we—as much as they—are uncertain where Blackthorne’s loyalties really lie. The plot is sufficiently complicated, the events sufficiently believable within Sands’s carefully constructed temporal and social setting; questions the reader might have about Christopher’s world are all ultimately answered, and we are left satisfied.

What really engaged me first as a reader, though, is Sands’s sense of humour, slightly sarcastic narrative voice, and clever word play. Christopher narrates the story with language that melds a sense of the period (1665) with a typically boyish irreverence and delight in really bad ideas. When Tom comments that “people can’t just build cannons,” Christopher responds: “But that’s where cannons come from: People build them. You think God sends cannons down from heaven?” And he later laments, “I wished God’s warnings would be a little clearer. You wouldn’t think it would be so hard for the Almighty to write STOP STEALING STICKY BUNS in the clouds or something.”

Throughout the novel, I grew more and more fond of Christopher; as he gains knowledge and maturity, he loses nothing of his boyish charm. The Blackthorne Key introduces us to Christopher; his story continues in The Blackthorne Key: The Mark of the Plague. Happily, though, The Blackthorne Key is completely self-contained; we do not need to read the second book, but I, for one, certainly will.

The Case of the Missing Moonstone (2015), by Jordan Stratford

stratford-moonstoneIllustrated by Kelly Murphy.

Jordan Stratford begins the notes at the back of The Case of the Missing Moonstone by telling us that “the year 1826 itself is practically a character in the book,” and it seems that in fact the year 1826 might just be the most historically accurate character in the book. In his story, Stratford brings together a plethora of well-known historical personages (Ada Lovelace and her half-sister Allegra Byron, Mary Godwin and her step-sister Jane (Claire) Clairmont, Charles Babbage, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charles Dickens), adjusting their ages, rewriting their characters, and conflating their stories to construct his narrative. He provides factual accounts of each of their lives in his notes, wherein he explains his decisions, and how the real historical characters were connected (and they all are, in interesting and complicated ways).

The novel opens with the unconventional young Ada being upgraded from a governess to a tutor. Mary Godwin is introduced into the equation when she comes to learn with Ada under the tutelage of Percy Bysshe Shelley—Peebs, as Ada calls him, based on his initials. The two girls form The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, named after Mary’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous advocate for women’s rights. As such an enterprise would be unacceptable for young ladies in their time (Mary Wollstonecraft’s advocacy notwithstanding), the young Charles Dickens is co-opted as their courier. At the end of the novel, the girls are joined by Allegra and Jane, in preparation for the sequels to follow.

The two protagonists’ reflect the complementary strengths of their namesakes: while Ada Lovelace is famous as a mathematician, Mary Shelley—as Mary Godwin eventually became—is known for her literary prowess, writing Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818. “In real life,” Stratford tell us, “Mary was eighteen years older than Ada … But I thought it would be more fun this way—to cast these two luminaries as friends.” Despite that Stratford does tell us that Percy Bysshe Shelley “ran off with sixteen-year-old Mary to Switzerland, and they were married two years later,” the difference between his Mary Godwin and Mary Shelley the author is not only striking but problematic. It would be difficult, however, to create a novel for middle-school readers that tells the truth of the extremely unconventional lifestyles that Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary, and her step-sister Jane (Claire) Clairmont (who was the real Allegra Byron’s mother) engaged in before Shelley’s early death by drowning. “While in reality Peebs had died even before our story begins, I have extended his life so that he, Ada, and Mary can be in this story together.” “As with Mary,” Stratford continues, “Jane’s timeline is moved so that she can be young alongside Mary and Ada,” and “in real life, Allegra died of fever at the age of five.”

These alterations do a great disservice to young readers; Stratford’s intent of creating an engaging story peopled with historical figures is perhaps well intentioned, but more problematic than effective. Young readers interpret story as reflecting reality in some way: the expressive-realist error, no doubt, but not surprising in the middle-school audience this mystery is intended for. While it is fascinating to read a well-written novel set in a historical period and learn from the research the author has engaged in, when it is difficult to discern where history ends and fiction begins, the novel becomes far less valuable as a vehicle of knowledge acquisition—which young readers will take it to be.

It really is a shame that Stratford plays so lose and easy with the characters, as his research is strong, and he incorporates the factual history smoothly into his story. Ada is brilliantly constructed as an excessively intelligent young girl, with strong characteristics of high-functioning Asperger’s. Anyone who lives with such a child will recognize both the frustrating and the rewarding aspects of living with someone like Stratford’s Ada. Ada’s mathematical and scientific investigations are described in just enough detail to inform the reader without boredom, and the dynamics between the socially oblivious Ada and the more psychologically astute Mary are delightful. When the characters are this engaging, and the plot interesting and well constructed, we can forgive the author some degree of liberty with historicity.

And herein lies another issue with The Case of the Missing Moonstone, at least for me: as I read through it, having suspended my disbelief regarding the characters—I quite enjoyed Ada’s youthful eccentricities and Mary’s rampant imagination—I couldn’t help but feel that I had read this plot before… The title should have been a dead giveaway, but it didn’t occur to me that an author would unabashedly copy an earlier plot.

Again in his notes, Stratford is entirely forthcoming, telling us about Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), commonly accepted as the first detective novel written in English. “Our mystery,” he admits, “is a nod to some of the elements of this classic.” More than just a nod, Mr. Stratford, when your plot can be so readily anticipated through knowledge of Wilkie Collins’s. Middle-school readers will almost certainly not have read The Moonstone, so we can see how Stratford’s idea that “it would be fun to have the world’s first computer programmer and the world’s first science-fiction author solving the world’s first fictional detective mystery” could appeal. The writing is of course all Stratford’s, and he has an effective authorial voice, hints of sarcasm underlying the more straightforward narrative that young readers will really enjoy. But yet the novel bothers me. The use of an already well-known and successful premise, the drastically changed biographies of well-known historical figures: for me, these infringe upon my appreciation of the strong characterization of Ada and the interesting explorations of nineteenth-century science and literature. If it were only Ada, with a supporting cast of unknowns, in a story with an original plot… but it is not, and it is up to my readers to decide to what degree the lack of historicity and originality impacts their enjoyment. For me, it was too much.

Neil Flambé and the Bard’s Banquet (2015), by Kevin Sylvester

Sylvester - BardNeil Flambé (or should I say Kevin Sylvester) strikes again. We know him (Neil, not Kevin) as an arrogant, self-assured 15-year-old chef with a penchant for trouble. He is plagued by unwelcome mysteries, such as a piece of paper preserved in an ancient jar of honey that finds its way into his kitchen. Frustrated, he explicitly refuses to engage; all he really wants is to “just run the restaurant, in peace for a change” (6). Readers know, of course, that this will not be his fate.

Neil has been commissioned by Lord Lane to use the case of honey to make an exquisite meal—which Neil is of course confident he can do—but in the making of the meal, he is forced to open the ominous jar of honey, revealing a poem in Elizabethan script, a cypher to unravel. Neil hands the paper over to Lord Lane and washes his hands of the situation. Readers know, of course, that this will not be the end of it. When Lord Lane goes missing, Neil—as the last person to speak with him—is called to help. Accompanied by his cousin Larry, and eventually his girlfriend Isabella, he and his unerring sense of smell set off to England. The usual gripping and humorous adventure ensues, revolving around British culture and history, especially the history of the Elizabethan theatre: William Shakespeare, Will Kemp and his nine-days Morris dance, and the rivalry between the two men.

The narrative is rife with Sylvester’s trademark punnery and clever names (such as Arthur Gawain, the Oxford scholar) but also brings in new layers of allusion for precocious readers: for example to Harry Potter (97), the Lassie series (131), and the obscure cult film Green Eggs and Hamlet (213). Neil’s slovenly attention to his schooling is represented differently, as well. Not only does Larry show him up with his eclectic knowledge, as usual, but in numerous situations Neil’s lack of knowledge of basic highschool content—most notably Shakespeare’s plays—excludes him from the action. Being forced to recognize this failing grate, and his discomfort is a strong advocate for better study habits; I would not be surprised if curious readers leave this novel and go directly to Shakespeare in some form (Manga Shakespeare is actually very good. As Isabella’s friend Rose dryly observes (as she gains entrance into an exclusive archive), “Academic accreditation opens doors. Stay in school, kids.” (129).

What stands out most in this fifth book in the series is Neil’s development as a young man. Reading over past reviews, I note that in each novel, we’ve watched as Neil grows that little bit more mature, beginning to recognize the value of others—and others’ abilities—in his life. In The Bard’s Banquet, we see a monumental change: Neil moves beyond a recognition of the social contract, and the flutterings of emotional connection to others, to actual behavioral change. He says “please”—twice in a row, shocking his cousin (14); he contritely recognizes the validity of Jones’s criticism of his inflated ego, and sincerely apologizes (165); and he commends Isabella for her prowess: “complements never flowed easily, unless he was talking about his own food, so this was new” (113). A greater emotional epiphany comes when Larry saves him from potential death (not that they haven’t been here before), and Neil breaks down. This scene is a moment of poignancy amongst the adventure and humour: “It’s cool, cuz. … I’ve been waiting for a little emotion to break through that gruff cheffy exterior,” Larry tells him reassuringly: “There’ve been glimpses before, but this is good. Don’t hold back any more” (206). The sixth book in the series, Neil Flambé and the Duel in the Desert is due out next month (March 2016); I am greatly looking forward to seeing how Neil continues to develop as a character.

Here Lies Arthur (2007), by Philip Reeve

0-545-09463-1Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur is quite a departure from his other books—the Larklight and Mortal Engines series—but equally, or even more, engaging. My first thought upon reading Here Lies Arthur was: how much do modern young readers know of the Arthurian legend? How familiar are they with the old tales, the fairy tales, the legends and myths that my generation was raised with? My own children seem sadly lacking in this department, and I guess I have only myself to blame. I really hope that their unfortunate focus on more modern children’s literature (although they have both read The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, and The Dark is Rising…) is not indicative of a trend, because Here Lies Arthur requires a fairly complete knowledge of the Arthurian tales, and it is such a spectacularly interesting version that I would hope all young readers would have the chance of reading, understanding, and thus enjoying it.

The story is told from the point of view of Gwyna, a young girl who is coerced into delivering to Arthur a sword, pretending to be the lake-lady of Celtic myth. From there, the reader can see where the book will take us: Gwyna—who becomes the servant boy Gwyn to protect the astute Myrddin’s secret—soon learns the power of story in deception. The stories Myrddin spins of Arthur’s prowess, his nobility, his ability to unite the warring leaders under one British rule, are crafted with care, aimed at the single political aim of British unity and peace. Arthur, though, is cast as a warring chieftain, with all the faults of a warrior rather than the powers of a diplomat or politically astute ruler. In the afterward, Reeve tells us who in his story relates to whom in the legends we all know: most of them we will have guessed—Gwenhwyfar is Gueneviere, Cei is Sir Kay—but some names are a little harder—Medrawt is Mordred, Peredur is Sir Percival, and of course Myrddin is Merlin. The characters, as they are presented, create a far more believable narrative than the legends do, and we are as riveted by the story Reeve spins as Myrddin’s listeners were of his tales of Arthur. In the end, Gwyna articulates a knowledge that has been growing in her for years: “The real Arthur had been just a little tyrant in an age of tyrants. What mattered about him was the stories” (286). Reeve’s carefully crafted story makes us really think about the transmission of the legends that underlie our culture: for legends by definition have their basis in some historical truth, but have been altered over time to become almost mythic. Gwyna’s tale takes the reader back to a time that is hidden in the mists of romance and chivalry; it clears the air, leaving us feeling that perhaps—despite Reeve’s claims that he “did not set out to portray ‘the real King Arthur’, only to add [his] own little thumbnail to the sea of stories which surrounds him”—Philip Reeve’s version could be the closest we know to the truth.