Review: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby


4 out 5 New Stars

This is book 1 in the York series **edited to fix – I don’t think the series should be called York. The series should be called The Shadow Cipher, but no one asked me.

As a book lover *cough* *hoarder* *cough* it’s an absolute wonder if I read a book within 6 months of buying it. This one I began the day it got to my house. I saw Richard of Richard’s Book Nook on YouTube unbox it in a middlegrade book box and was so intrigued I ordered it that day and then began it when it got here.

This is kind of like a real-world Ready Player One, only I thought it would be architecturally based rather than in a video game. That is what I hoped for. That’s not exactly what I got.

This is set in an alternate New York, called York, where a set of genius inventor twins, the Morningstarrs, envisioned and built the city to be cleaned by mechanical slugs and birds and caterpillars. Where energy is gathered by silver cobblestones and glass windows that store the energy in batteries called Lions. Where a strange guild runs the trains and subway (called the Underway) with cars so efficient and inventive they never need to be replaced. They also built buildings so magical they fire the imagination and blur the line between technology and fantasy. Then the twins disappeared. But they left behind a puzzle to be solved, the reward for which is a treasure beyond all imagining.

It’s been more than 150 years and the cipher has faded to myth, making the original Morningstarr buildings little more than tourist attractions. Now a developer wants to forge a new path by knocking down the old. Sadly, our main characters, Tess and Theo, named after the Morningstarrs, live in one of those buildings. The mythos of the cipher has always been a part of their lives; their grandfather spent his life researching it and hoping to find the clues to solve it. A villainous pair of the developer’s imps have served everyone in the building a 30 day notice to vacate. This doesn’t just mean losing their home, but the end of the dream of solving the cipher.

I really loved Tess. She clearly has an anxiety problem, she even has a service animal called 9 – a 45 pound mix between a domestic cat and what is probably a cervil. Genetically engineered animals are all the rage and pepper the story. 9 helps her when she begins to “catastrophize” – something she does a lot, her mind spinning on a mad series of what-if’s so that she almost goes catatonic. She calls her brother Theo a robot for his literal interpretation of everything, his pride at remembering every string of numbers he hears and true-to-life miniature lego sculptures. They both felt like real people..

The other leg of the story is Jaime Cruz. He is Cuban and lives with his grandmother who is the manager of the building. His mother died and his father is an engineer who works all around the world and is hardly ever home. His grandmother loves the building, and she knows they will never be able to afford another apartment in the city. They will probably have to move to New Jersey, something everyone in the building seems to fear. Jaime is kind of a third wheel… I liked him, but he didn’t seem to have a really necessary part in the story. He does have a cell phone, which helps out in a few situations, but I hope there will be more for him to do in the next installment.

For the most part – I found this incredibly charming. It felt like a love letter to a city I’ve never been in and wish I could visit. It’s New York to the nth degree. The cast of characters is diverse as far as ethnicity and skin colors go. Even Native Americans are mentioned, and it seems that in this timeline in this alternate world, there was a different outcome to the westward expansion, where the tribes were not decimated. All the characters felt like a person, not a sketch. There aren’t any obvious LGBTQ+ references. The plot hums along – but I don’t find the finding of the clues and the path of the cipher to be that engaging. I often went on these trips with them and was disappointed to not find a solid answer at the end of the trip. There is one breakneck, slam-bang adventure on a train ride that seemed to be what I had been wanting all along – something about the history of the city and the cipher coming together….. and then no pay off. Just another mystery.

I still enjoyed this, I am still very eager for the next installment. I loved the worldbuilding, and the flashbacks to the 1800’s were just as engaging (there are only 2). We don’t actually see the Morningstarrs but see their longtime companion, Ava, a black woman with a mysterious past of her own. I hope we see more from her point of view in the next one as well. She’s fascinating. Heck, I want to see more of everything in this world.




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