Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Shadow Cipher

The Shadow Cipher
by Laura Ruby
Recommended Ages: 11+

Twins Tess and Theo and their across-the-hallway neighbor Jaime live in an alternate-world version of New York City, where a pair of mysterious twins named Theresa and Theodore Morningstarr (notice the similar names?) changed the course of history. More than 100 years ago, the Morningstarrs built marvelous machines that still work but that nobody understands – from animated suits of armor that cook and clean in people's homes to caterpillars that pick up trash and other metallic creatures that clean windows. They built the Underway, a system of underground and elevated trains that knocks our world's subways into a cocked hat. The skies and rivers are clean because of the energy sources they discovered, and the towers they built around the city are magical places to live in – including 354 W. 73rd St., where our heroes live. It's a building where the elevator moves in all directions and never follows the same route twice, where some families have lived for generations, and where three kids with varied problems feel uniquely safe. But they're about to get kicked out, because the city has decided to sell the building to a sinister developer named Slant, whose creepy goons Stoop and Pinscher don't even wait for the residents' 30 day notice to expire before they start sneaking off with pieces of the building.

The kids are devastated. They realize that to save their home, they have to solve a puzzle called the Old York Cipher – a series of clues that the Morningstarrs left behind before they disappeared, promising that whoever solved them would be richly rewarded. Loads of people have been trying to solve it for many years. There's even a society devoted to exploring the Cipher, but the search is at a standstill. Could the real solution lie at the end of a completely different series of clues? Is it possible that the Cipher has a mind of its own, and it has chosen these three kids at just this moment to solve it? Will they get there on time to save 354 W. 73rd St., and will they survive what the Cipher throws at them?

In an adventure ranging all over the city, their new branch-line of clues leads Tess, Theo and Jaime to museums, architectural wonders, and precariously preserved remnants of the United States' early history, including lots of real-world discoveries with perhaps just a twist of alternate-world difference. The kids discover little-known facts (and artifacts) about George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Dickens, and more. But also, they find themselves in hair-raising danger, menaced by machines, a traitor in friend's clothing, and a horrible creature that Pinscher and Stoop have at their command. On top of all that, they also have to deal with family and social issues like watching a loved one lose his memory, missing an absent parent, suffering from paralyzing anxiety, getting along with abrasive neighbors and relatives, and of course, the growing certainty of losing their home.

The three kids in this book are special. One of the twins is very bright, but his sister teases him about being an emotional robot. The other really needs the companionship of a huge, superintelligent cat. Then there's Jaime, who has a remarkable gift for drawing and who has comic books on the brain. Besides their talents, they have have big hearts, which connect them with a larger cast of zany but endearing characters. Their adventure is fraught with fun, mystery, moments of terror, and humanity that touches the emotions in a variety of ways. There are some weird, ominous and horrible things moving around the edges of the story, too. But there are also jaw-dropping scenes that will definitely max out the art design and special effects budget of your mental movie studio.

This is the first book in the "York" trilogy. Its sequels are The Clockwork Ghost and The Map of Stars. Other titles by Laura Ruby include The Wall and the Wing and its sequel, The Chaos King; the children's book Lily's Ghosts; the young adult novels Good Girls, Play Me, Bad Apple, Bone Gap and Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All; and the adult novel I'm Not Julia Roberts.

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