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Book Review

This review was created by the editorial staff at Thriving Family magazine

This mystery adventure book by Patrick Carman is the fifth book in " The 39 Clues" series and is published by Scholastic, Inc.

The Black Circle is written for kids ages 9 to 12. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

In the first book in "The 39 Clues" series (The Maze of Bones), Dan and Amy Cahill's wealthy grandmother, Grace, dies and leaves a challenge to her large extended family: Whoever finds the 39 clues she's left behind will gain wealth and prestige beyond their wildest dreams. Orphaned Amy (age 14) and her brother, Dan, (age 11) are determined to outplay their vicious, devious family members.

While investigating a clue in the Cairo airport, Dan and Amy receive their first of many mysterious messages from someone called NRR. The note leads them to a locker containing a clue, a travel guide, a credit card, disguises and two tickets for a flight to Russia leaving in an hour. With competitor cousins the Holts and the Kabras on their tails, Dan and Amy learn they have just 36 hours to get to NRR before a secret room containing clues and information about their parents closes forever.

The kids fly to Russia, leaving their au pair (nanny), Nellie, behind in Cairo. When they and cousin Hamilton Holt simultaneously find a clue inside a statue, the kids decide the only way to meet their time deadline is to work with the Holt family. The Holts go to Siberia in search of half of the clues while Dan and Amy follow a lead involving the infamous Rasputin to St. Petersburg. Since their disguises make them look older, Dan and Amy are able to get a motorcycle, then a small car, to drive themselves around. The kids travel to the royal village, summer home of the czars, and realize they must find the Amber Room, which was stolen from one of the village castles by the Nazis in World War II. (Note: The whole room was historically stolen.)

They find a clue in the village that guides them to a theater at the Kremlin in Moscow, and a theater trap door leads them to NRR. Her real name is Nataliya Ruslanovna Radova; she is a descendant of Anastasia Romonov, as well as a member of the Lucian branch with 39 clues competitors Irina Spasky and Ian and Natalie Kabra. For reasons she won't explain, Nataliya betrays her own family branch to help the kids get into the Amber Room, which is hidden in a church. There, they find their next significant clue, a gram of melted amber.

Christian Beliefs


Other Belief Systems

Amy reads that Rasputin convinced the Russian royals he had supernatural healing powers. In several places throughout the book, the kids suggest that maybe he did. Irina says that when you lose a child, you lose your soul.

Authority Roles

Nellie, Dan and Amy's young au pair and primary authority figure, is in Cairo for most of the book while the kids make their way across Russia alone. They contact her and tell her what happens; she makes plans to meet up with them in Moscow. The kids frequently follow clues on their own, which mildly worries Nellie but never results in discipline or increased oversight.

Eisenhower Holt is concerned about his son, Hamilton, who is working with Dan and Amy to find clues. He lectures the boy on not going soft or failing the family. Eisenhower's mother died young, and readers get the impression that his father was hard on him in his youth. Irina lost a child (though no detail is given as to how or when), and she attributes much of her heartless behavior to this event.

After her dad makes a joke about his muscles, one of the Holt cousins says, "My father is a dork." Nataliya puts herself at great risk to help the kids find a clue and learn more about their parents.


Dan mentions sores on a butt when he mistakes the word hemophilia (a disease from which both Alexie Romanov and Nataliya suffered) for hemorrhoids.



Discussion Topics

If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:

  • What did you learn about Russia from this story?
  • What did you learn about Rasputin and the Russian royal family?
  • What do you know about Russian history?
  • Which site or historical person in this book would you most like to learn more about?

  • How does Dan react when the kids receive a gold credit card?

  • How does Amy respond?
  • Why does she later find it easier to use the card?
  • What would you buy if someone gave you a credit card with all the money you wanted?
  • How can credit cards be dangerous?
  • What is materialism, and what kind of problems can it cause?
  • What does the Bible say about money?

  • What kind of father is Eisenhower Holt?

  • Why is he so concerned about Hamilton working with Dan and Amy?
  • What was Eisenhower's father like?
  • How do you think a person's relationship with his parents can impact the kind of parent he becomes?
  • Why is Irina so cold-hearted?
  • Why is it sometimes easier to understand people's motives when you know something about their past?

  • Why does Nataliya risk so much to help Dan and Amy, even to the point of betraying her own Lucian branch?

  • What impresses her about the kids?
  • Why is it important to be able to work with others and not try to accomplish everything on your own?

  • When Nataliya offers to give Dan and Amy information about their parents and how they died, why don't they accept her offer immediately?

  • What are they afraid of?
  • How do they feel as they make this decision?
  • If you were them, what would you have chosen?
  • What kinds of things might you be better off not knowing?
  • Who can help you when the realities of life seem frightening or overwhelming?

  • How do you think all of the clues Dan and Amy have found will ultimately fit together?

  • Are they being given a formula for something?
  • What might it be?
  • What will life look like for the winners of the 39 clues contest?

Additional Comments/Notes

Lying: The kids leave a note for Nellie saying they're going out to get doughnuts when they're actually looking for a clue in the Cairo airport. Dan skillfully fools his cousin Hamilton about a clue because Grace taught him to bluff like a Vegas poker player. The kids pay someone to help them deceive Irina to get her off their trail.

Book reviews cover the content, themes and world-views of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

You can request a review of a title you can't find at reviewrequests@family.org.

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