Perhaps because of my early and abiding love for E.L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, I never pass up the chance to read a middle grade mystery filled with puzzle clues, maps and museums, especially if the book is set in New York City, which seems to be THE place for this specific genre. However, this is a genre of kidlit that is especially challenging to write. It's hard to keep the plot complex and suspenseful while also making sure that it is reasonable and as realistic as possible. York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby does all of this and more. In fact, one of the challenges as an adult reader of this middle-grade-mystery-genre is maintaining enough of a willing suspension of disbelief to be carried along by the story. Ruby achieves this with two important plot points. Early into the mystery, Ruby has one of her young sleuths express skepticism for the ease with which they seem to be finding and decoding clues that none of the many adults trying to solve the Old York Cipher had cracked in more than a century and, even more importantly, how is it possible the clues have survived intact for so long. She also has the kids turn to an adult for help at an important part of the story. This goes a long way to sustaining the believability of Ruby's story while also silencing that adult-minded critic in my head as I read The Shadow Cipher. Another challenge for me when I start an epic mystery like Ruby's is the knowledge that I am reading the first in the series, which means there will be little or no resolution or solution. And, while Ruby definitely sets up the second book in her York series at the end of The Shadow Cipher, she reaches a very satisfying stopping point in the first book.
The Shadow Cipher takes place in an alternative New York City, one that was shaped by the influence of the Morningstarr twins, architectural, technological, engineering and inventive geniuses whose buildings, public transportation and robotic helpers, (huge caterpillars that act as Roombas and robotic manservants that shred toilet paper and sleep on piles of towels when they feel abandoned) left a huge mark on New York City. The Morningstarr twins left an even bigger mark on the city by disappearing in 1855, but not without deeding all their land and property to a trust in the city's name and also leaving behind something for the residents of the city,
a sort of puzzle, or treasure hunt. The first clue, some string of in comprehensible gibberish, was printed in the newspaper. That clue would lead to another clue, the newspaper headlines howled, and another and another and would eventually reveal the greatest treasure ever known to man. The treasure only waited for a treasure hunter clever enough to discover it.
Teenaged twins Tess and Theo Biedermann, named after the Morningstarrs, live in a Morningstarr building and grew up with a grandfather who, until recently, spent all his time trying to solve the Morningstarr mystery. Tess and Theo have the typical middle grade novel twin yin and yang traits. And, Tess has Nine, one of the steampunky, scifi quirks of The Shadow Cipher. Nine is a mashup pet, part serval, part siamese, and she is huge and intimidating. Turns out a serval-siamese mix is a real thing, called a Savannah cat. However, Jaime Cruz, Tess and Theo's neighbor and fellow sleuth, has two hamster-hogs named Napoleon and Tyrone. Perspectives alternate between Theo, Tess, Jaime and Cricket, another Morningstarr tenant who, being much younger, travels the building gathering information, whether she knows it or not.
Throw into this mix Darnell Slant, real estate developer and mogul who has dated performance artists and super models - I imagined a sort of Elon Musk-Richard Branson-Donald Trump mashup of a character, but for the middle grade set... When Slant buys condemns the Morningstarr building the kids live in, the clock starts ticking. Ruby keeps the action, mystery and suspense strong throughout the almost 500 pages of this first book in a trilogy. From searching deep in the sewer tunnels of the city to flying high over the city at night to look for patterns in burned out street lamps, to taking a frighteningly fast ride in an old train on a specially designed route that is part of the puzzle, Jaime, Theo and Tess never slow down. As The Shadow Cipher comes to an end, the trio make an amazing discovery about the possible nature of the treasure the Morningstarrs hid just as they almost lose their lives in an event that seems to bring an end to the clues. Book 1 in the York Trilogy was a wild, ride filled with amazing details and images. I can't wait to see where the second book takes me!