The Shadow Cipher. York Book 1 by Laura Ruby. Walden Pond Press, 2017.
Over a hundred years ago, the two Morningstarr siblings created York as the jewel of America. Tall, glittering buildings with elevators that go all different directions, subways with cars that are cleaned by mechanical bugs. After they died, they left everything to their servant Ava Oneal, about whom mystery swirled – possibly escaped slave, definitely heiress and martial arts expert, and who then vanished. But besides their fabulous architecture, the Morningstarrs left another gift to the people of York – the Old York Cipher, a puzzle and presumably treasure hunt.
In the present day, the Cipher is still unsolved, and most think it never will be. We meet five children all living in a beautiful Morningstarr apartment building, which as the story opens has been bought by developers who want to demolish it. Twins Tess and Theo were named after the Morningstarrs by their grandfather, who dedicated his life to the Cipher, though he’s recently had memory problems severe enough to need to move to a home. Jaime lives with his grandmother, the building caretaker, whose native language is Spanish but who is also fluent in several others. (While naturally the kids tried to keep her out of the loop of their more dangerous adventures, I would have liked to see more of her!) All three of them are twelve, and know each other slightly from school. But they come together as they decide that the building needs to be saved. That quest will take them all over the city. Meanwhile, keeping guard over happenings in the building from her tricycle is six-year-old Cricket, who just might hold the key to everything.
This is both puzzle and adventure, though the adventure takes center stage for much of the book. The characters are well-drawn even with the largish cast, and diverse, as the twins are Jewish, Jaime Latinix, and Cricket bronze-skinned with black hair. The world-building that peeps out is fantastic, including hints of an America that perhaps didn’t treat the Native population as horrifically as ours has. It is also undeniably long – at 476 pages, it’s over 100 pages longer than Ruby’s last teen book, Bone Gap, (which I also loved, though it is very different.) Even at that, the ending is rather a cliffhanger, so I must advise readers who like to have all books in hand before starting a series to wait. I’m personally hoping for it to come out on audio, as I think my son would enjoy it very much. It should work well for kids who enjoyed books like Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.
This book has been nominated for a Cybils award. These opinions are my own, and do not reflect that of the committee.