Reviewed by Tammie Benham

The intensifying pace of the first book in National Book Award finalist and Printz Award winner Laura Ruby’s new series, York.  Book One: The Shadow Cipher, left me anticipating the next installment.  The setting for this middle grade novel (3rd to 7th yorkgrade) is a familiar but altered version of New York City.  Some landmarks are recognizable, some are slightly different, others are invented.  All are captivating.

Twins Theo and Tess Biedermann and their friend Jaime Cruz live in one of the five original Morningstarr buildings in New York City, 354 W 73re Street.  Designed by extraordinarily brilliant twins, Theodore and Teresa Morningstarr and left to their best friend and heir when they disappeared in 1855, Theo, Tess, and Jaime, along with a diverse set of characters, now inhabit the building.  They love the temperamental and eccentric electromagnetic elevator that conveys them to their chosen floor via randomly selected horizontal and vertical patterns, taking a different route each trip. They love the Morningstarr seals placed in the windows.  They love their view of the Hudson River.  They also realize if not for this building they couldn’t afford to live in the City and would likely end up in some remote location, like Hoboken, or Idaho.

When nefarious real estate developer Darnell Slant, who is known for gobbling up Morningstarr buildings, sets his sites on their building, Tess and Theo decide the only way to save their home is to solve the Old York Cipher left behind by the Morningstarr twins.  The Cipher promises treasure to anyone who can solve it and has encouraged many to search.  The twin’s Grandfather is himself a member of the Old Cipher Society. Tess and Theo have been solving puzzles their entire lives and now have the motivation of saving their home to help them solve the greatest puzzle of all: the solution to the Old World Cipher.

As with any good adventure, things don’t always go as planned.  Finding what they believe to be an alternate set of clues leads the twins and Jaime, accompanied by Tess’s cat, “Nine,” who is a mix of serval, Siamese, and “who knows what else…a sprinkling of wolf maybe,” on a journey through the magnificent city created by the Morningstarr twins. Dodging the henchmen of Darnell Slant, the threesome travels through a world where trolleys run by a mysterious secret guild wind above, around, and under buildings, and the river.  Giant mechanical insects eat dirt and sometimes humans. Towering skyskrapers have eccentric elevators.  The machines left behind by the Morningstarrs seem to be watching them, and possibly leading them.  At times the threesome wonder why solving the new set of clues is so easy when others have struggled for a century to solve clues.  Are they solving the cipher, or is the cipher solving them?

Driven by believable characters, the reader discovers Tess struggles with anxiety, which her family has dubbed “catastrophizing,” imagining the disastrous consequences that could occur at any time. Nine serves as her therapy animal.  Theo has the makings of a brilliant architect but is overcoming having been bullied regarding his eccentricities.  Jaime has lost his mother, has a father who constantly travels, and lives with this Grandmother, whom he calls Mima.  He is a budding artist and his talents help the trio of would-be sleuths see clues in a different way.  There is some feel-good humor and a few laugh-out-loud situations interspersed in the drama.

The secondary characters are equally endearing, especially the mysterious Aunt Esther who may be helping the twins solve the clues or may hold part of the cipher.  Jaime’s Mima keeps the trio fed, but also is portrayed as someone who will not be left in the dark.  Flashbacks give some hints to the origins of our hero and heroines and everything seems to be hinting at something further.  This very engaging first installment in a planned trilogy will leave you breathless and wanting more.

 

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