- The book begins with this: “Let’s build a cannon.” I can’t tell you the number of times that’s happened to me, and pretty much any book which starts that way will capture my attention. My older brother was a master of blowing stuff up and shooting off bottle rockets with odd attachments when we were kids. It might seem like nothing good is going to come of it – you might blow off stuffed bears’ private parts if you do this inside, for example – but you know you’re going to get a pretty interesting story out of it.
- Christopher and Tom’s friendship. Neither one of them has an easy life, but when they’re together, they are a team. And when they’re not together, they’re loyal. Tom protects Christopher. Christopher shields Tom.
- Christopher and Master Benedict’s relationship – Master Benedict is a secretive guy, and not very cuddly or warm. But he has a deep affection for his apprentice Christopher, one which becomes more clear after Master Benedict is gone.
- The power of a few sticky buns. Tom comes from a baking family. His father is a miser, as well as bitter and angry about almost everything, but Tom’s mother finds ways to pass on sticky buns and rolls to neighbors who don’t have enough and to Tom, who’s just lost everything. It’s a reminder that everyone can find a way to be kind, even if they have little themselves.
- Knowledge and quick thinking win out over brute force, fear, and ignorance. Christopher seems like a normal kid, maybe a little smarter than some others, but not a genius by any means. His love of puzzles means that he can stay one step ahead of the bad guys who are not just out to get Master Benedict and then him, but who want to use a powerful discovery to overthrow the king. It all ends well, even if it’s a little messy getting there.
The Blackthorn Key is set long in the past, but it’s reminiscent of contemporary books with puzzles and mysteries to solve. Sands makes the past so lively and real that you can easily imagine yourself as Christopher, running through the streets, loving your friends, and ultimately outsmarting the bad guys and finding a path to a new life.