Book Review: York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby – 4 stars

I had heard such wonderful things about Laura Ruby’s York: The Shadow Cipher! And, knowing that the 2nd book in the series, York: The Clockwork Ghost was releasing on May 14th, I just had to dig into it and find out what all the fuss was about! I really was not disappointed! This book was intriguing and entertaining for me and is a definite winner, in my opinion, for the middle grade/young YA reader!

The Shadow Cipher begins with a flashback to the time when men used walking canes and street lamps were lit by oil. We are introduced to a set of genius twins, The Morningstars, who are responsible for amazing mechanical creations that have changed the face of New York City and the world! Their inventions include everything from mechanical bugs that clean the streets to elevators that can move diagonally. Before the twins died, they created a cipher for the public: solve the riddles and find the treasure! Unfortunately, however, people have been trying to solve the cipher for hundreds of year unsuccessfully!

Enter another set of twins (modern-day Tess and Theo Biedermann) and their friend Jaime Cruz. All 13 years-old, the kids are in a situation where their current apartment building is about to be sold to a wealthy New York real estate magnate. When they intercept a mysterious letter addressed to their grandfather (a famous cipherist who has been trying to solve the puzzle his whole life!) they begin to suspect that there is a second set of clues to the cipher that have, as yet, been undiscovered. (Thus, the title: The Shadow Cipher.) They decide that the only way to save their building is to solve the cipher and find the treasure!

Tons of hijinks ensue…the kids are led all over the city searching for clues related to history, New York City and the Morningstars. While all of that is happening, strange things are occurring in their apartment building…the real estate magnate’s henchman are searching the building, members of their grandfather’s cipher society are getting involved and clues are turning up in unexpected places. Ultimately, the kids’ quest to solve the cipher is exciting and fast-paced, if sometimes a little to dependent on coincidences to drive the plot!

As I’ve mentioned before, I can’t read books out of order so I picked up this one to prepare myself for the release of York: The Clockwork Ghost. Knowing that there was a sequel to The Shadow Cipher somewhat prepared me for a cliffhanger at the end of the book, but I was slightly disappointed about the lack of closure that the book provided. While it left me anxious to find out what happens in the The Clockwork Ghost, I would have preferred a bit more effort to tie up the initial storyline without it. I really don’t like being left hanging! The prevalence of ‘coincidence’ as a plot driver and the lack of a satisfying ending were the only things that kept me from making this a 5-star review!

I must say, I loved Ruby’s writing. Her creation of a ‘better’ New York combined with the descriptions of the New York I know and love were incredibly compelling. She is also a very smart writer: there are tons of nods to history and subtle jokes throughout the book. As a kid, I loved being able to pick up on subtleties that an author embedded in her story. Not much has changed in that regard since then! Finally, the ‘world building’ that Ruby undertakes with her inventions and technological enhancements in the story are impressive. She folds mechanical inventions that do not exist today into the New York that we know and makes the whole thing hang together in a way that is coherent and believable.

Ruby definitely has a feminist agenda of sorts in her book as well. (And don’t get me wrong, I’m ALL for that!) There are many references debunking gender sterotypes and lots of female characters (young and old) who are depicted outside of cultural female norms. Tess and Theo’s mom is a detective while their dad loves to bake, Cricket (a neighborhood 5 year old) is dedicated to all kind of gender-bending in her wardrobe and Tess herself is, by far, the braver and ‘stronger’ of the two twins. As an adult, these feminist-type references were pretty obvious to me but, for the Middle Grade set, I think Ruby does a nice job folding the message seamlessly into the story without making her intentions too overt.

I must also commend Ruby for her characters: Tess, Theo and Jaime are interesting and distinct. Jaime is Latinx and cultural identities are explored occasionally via his relationship with his grandmother. There are sly references to the potential for a budding romance between Tess and Jaime and interesting passages that describe what it’s like to be a twin. While I found the 13 year olds a bit mature…they seem to only make good decisions and have a great deal of freedom to move about the city alone…as individuals, I understood their motivations and found them unique and likeable. Jaime’s struggle with his father’s absence and his identity as an artist were as compelling as Theo’s ‘Rain Main’-like mathmatical abilities and Tess’s struggle with anxiety!

The other characters within the book are, unfortunately, somewhat less distinguishable from one another: there are about 20 neighbors who live in the apartment building and another 10 members of the cipherist society and many of their identities tend to run together. Nonetheless, the important characters seem to distinguish themselves, when necessary. Cricket (as mentioned above) is hilarious and plays a key role in helping the kids with their quest while Mr. Stoop and Mr. Pincher (ridiculously funny names for super tall and super slouched guys) are both evil and idiotic as henchman should be!

Overall, this book has an incredible amount to recommend it. I won’t disclose the ‘message’ that is finally delivered to the kids in the closing chapter of the book as it would go too far in spoiling the ending but, suffice it to say that (despite the book’s lack of closure) there is something to be learned from everything that happens to Tess, Theo and Jaime. Young readers ages 9-12 (and potentially older, in my opinion) as well as adults will enjoy this wild romp of a read that brings a fantastical premise and setting together with some real, determined and lovable characters! I can’t wait to see what The Clockwork Ghost has in store!

To get your copy of York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby, please click the link below:

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