Title: The Shadow Cipher
Author: Laura Ruby
Summary: The Morningstarr twins arrived in New York with a vision for a magnificent city––towering skyscrapers, dazzling machines, and winding train lines all running on technology no one had ever seen before––but by 1855, they’d disappeared, leaving behind everything except a vast treasure hidden at the end of a puzzle laid into the city itself. In the present day, however, the Old York Cipher has never been solved, and the greatest mystery of the modern world is little more than a tourist attraction. But Tess and Theo Biedermann believe, and when a real estate developer announces that the city has agreed to sell him the five remaining Morningstarr buildings, their likely destruction means the end of a dream long-held by the people of New York. If Tess, Theo, and their neighbor Jaime want to save their home, they have to prove that the Old York Cipher is real. Which means they have to solve it.
I’ve been thinking about Laura Ruby’s The Shadow Cipher a lot since I read it almost a year ago. It’s a thick middle-grade book that I would have absolutely devoured as a tween but also hooked me as an adult who favors grown-up fiction. The cover and plot are intriguing until you start reading and realize it’s also a solidly written and smartly plotted novel. (I know I get to read it now but seriously where was this book when I was twelve.) Yet I made no notes while reading and gave it three stars once I finished. Still, The Shadow Cipher demands my attention. Why?
The plot is propelled into action when a smarmy real estate tycoon buys up the last remaining Morningstarr buildings and, given an eviction notice and the arrival of a mysterious (and conspicuously convenient) never-before-seen letter, two siblings and their neighbor decide to solve the Old York Cipher before it’s (definitely) too late to save both their home and a part of history. But the story itself is so much more than that. It’s a love letter to the very idea of New York City and how that idea can both excite and inspire people who’ve never been there (and also remind natives why they stay). It’s an attempt to make history breathlessly fun and edge-of-your-seat exciting. It’s an empowering tale of family and perseverance and how listening to young people is important; they may think differently than adults, but sometimes that stubbornness and focus is worth exploring.
Perhaps part of my enjoyment of The Shadow Cipher was the low expectations I had to begin with: I started a book with no knowledge of the plot and no commitment to sit down and review it. I could just read, urged solely by a recommendation by someone I knew. Maybe I kept reading because Ruby’s novel reminded me of both National Treasure and The Magicians: history nerds smarter than their peers following clues to a long-rumored treasure? Check. Hints of magic around the corner of a brick building, visible to only those who believe it exists? Also check. Or possibly it’s because its sequel, The Clockwork Ghost, finally has a synopsis and solid release date. (!!!)
Or maybe, simply, The Shadow Cipher was a good book, and I really liked it. Maybe you will, too.