Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Unbreakable Code

The Unbreakable Code
by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
Recommended Ages: 12+

Emily and her best friend James have already bonded over an online puzzle game that led them to discover a previously unpublished novel by Edgar Allan Poe. At a party to celebrate their achievement, the pair notices their teacher, Mr. Quisling, seemingly stealing from a woman's purse. Before the evening is out, they're on the trail of another puzzle – a famous cipher that hasn't been solved since 1851 and that some people believe comes with a curse. Among the people who previously tried to solve it were Mark Twain and his friend, the real-life Tom Sawyer; but all their efforts went up in flames. Literally. Now it seems someone is setting fires around San Francisco, and it has something to do with a series of Book Scavenger hunts in which Mr. Quisling and another mysterious person are exchanging messages in code.

The kids' curiosity is more than piqued by the possibility that Mr. Quisling might somehow be involved with a series of arson attacks – particularly when one of the fires puts Emily's life in danger and destroys the bookstore run by her friend Hollister. The identity of a Book Scavenger player calling him- or herself Coolbrith is one mystery. The solution to a puzzle more than 150 years old is another. It doesn't hurt that there may be gold at the end of the trail of clues: particularly with both kids worried about what will become of their financially challenged families. But the danger of solving the mystery might be even more pressingly real, with a dangerous firebug targeting them (among others) for revenge.

This is the second book of (currently) three in the Book Scavenger series, between Book Scavenger and The Alcatraz Escape. It's a nice entry in the growing genre of books featuring youngsters cracking puzzles that span the history and geography of a big city. For more examples of this type, see for example The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby. James, Emily and her older brother Matthew are among a growing cast of well-drawn characters who go right to your heart, particularly given Emily's vulnerability and her courage to rise to new challenges – such as getting involved in a school dance planning committee and helping her hero, the inventor of the Book Scavenger game, get his spirit of fun back after a harrowing experience in the previous book. The book closes with a tease of what may come next for the friends, among whom readers will surely count themselves.

No comments: