The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby

The Shadow Cipher

It was 1798 when 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. Fifty-seven years later, the enigmatic architects disappeared, leaving behind for the people of New York the Old York Cipher—a puzzle laid into the shining...

Title:The Shadow Cipher
Author:
Rating:
Edition Language:English
Number of Pages:448 pages

The Shadow Cipher Reviews

  • Donalyn

    A thrilling start to an epic series! I can't wait to see the final edition with maps!

  • Jen

    Wow. Absolutely, awestruck WOW.

    Middle grade, contemporary, but not our timeline, not steam-punk, but other science, verging on the magical.

    Characters were awesome and real, with foibles and strengths. Diverse.

    First "real" book I've read in a while. That may have colored my reading of it slightly in the positive. EBooks are great and all, but nothing beats turning real pages and needing an actual bookmark.

    Despite wanting to skip to the end to see what happened, I did not, as I wanted to travel

    Wow. Absolutely, awestruck WOW.

    Middle grade, contemporary, but not our timeline, not steam-punk, but other science, verging on the magical.

    Characters were awesome and real, with foibles and strengths. Diverse.

    First "real" book I've read in a while. That may have colored my reading of it slightly in the positive. EBooks are great and all, but nothing beats turning real pages and needing an actual bookmark.

    Despite wanting to skip to the end to see what happened, I did not, as I wanted to travel the journey with the characters. Ending leads into a new adventure, but the main story arc is resolved, so while I am foaming at the mouth for the next book, I feel no need to get all Misery on the author.

    Fantastic book. I can't recommend it highly enough. Five, I don't REALLY have to wait for the next book do I, stars.

  • Betsy

    A wise bookseller friend of mine once said (and I’m paraphrasing here because she bloody tweets too often to locate the precise words), “If you work in a bookstore you are only allowed to invoke

    three times. The first time I did it for

    by Kate Milford. The second time will go to Laura Ruby’s

    ." Naturally a librarian reads something like that and their radar starts beeping like mad. A

    invocation is no small matter. And as luck would have it I had

    A wise bookseller friend of mine once said (and I’m paraphrasing here because she bloody tweets too often to locate the precise words), “If you work in a bookstore you are only allowed to invoke

    three times. The first time I did it for

    by Kate Milford. The second time will go to Laura Ruby’s

    ." Naturally a librarian reads something like that and their radar starts beeping like mad. A

    invocation is no small matter. And as luck would have it I had a copy of Laura Ruby's very book on my shelf. Sorta. I mean, coming in at a whopping 448 pages I’d sort of assumed that it was YA. I was not without reason. Laura Ruby has written middle grade in the past but at this precise moment in time is probably better known for books like the National Book Award / Printz Award winning young adult novel

    . It can also be unwise to have one’s own expectations raised so incredibly high when starting a new novel. They are inevitably going to be dashed

    Imagine New York City in the early 19th century. Imagine what would have happened if it had been home to two genius twins. Twins capable of inventing mechanical creations that eliminated waste, used special glass to harness the sun’s energy, and more. Twins who remade the city in their image and created a code in its very streets. Find the code and a treasure is yours. Simple, right? Only no one ever solved it. Now it is modern day and two different twins and a friend in their beloved building have discovered that a greedy real estate developer has bought their home and is mere months away from kicking them out. All seems lost until a mysterious letter arrives. It appears that while the Morningstar twins of long ago did create a cipher for the city to solve, there may have been more than one line of clues to follow. Using their brains, their feet, and more than a little bravery, the three kids set out to solve the mystery and save their building. Yet as they do they come to an unnerving realization. This isn’t just the city that never sleeps. It’s a city that takes pleasure in watching YOU sleep.

    Laura Ruby, the author, does not live in New York City. I knew this going into the book. I, on the other hand, lived there for eleven years so I’m very attuned to writers getting that city wrong in their fiction. For example, I once read an otherwise admirable middle grade mystery serious where three of the scenes in the book took place in alleyways in Museum Mile. Do I need to tell you that NYC has no alleys and, even if we did, they certainly wouldn’t be on Museum Mile? And one could argue that since Ms. Ruby is dealing with an alternate world Manhattan (the book is primarily set in Manhattan, though there is a very amusing glimpse of Brooklyn in one of the scenes) that she needn’t be so tied to the reality of the city. One

    argue that, and one would be wrong. As far as I’m concerned you do the city then you do the research. So I picked up this book and within, I’m gonna say, three chapters I was convinced that Ms. Ruby must have a second secret life in the heart of the Big Apple that she’s let no one know about. Accurate to the city? Baby, you don’t even know the half of it. Okay, here’s just how well Ms. Ruby captures NYC: In one scene our characters are having a discussion when in walks my own kids’ former preschool, Sunshine Daycare. It’s THAT on the nose with the details. Snafus are of the tiny variety. For example, the A train does appear in this story to be an elevated stop at 116th Street when, in fact, that’s actually the 1 train, but I’ll let it lie. And reading this book I was both floored and suddenly hit with a wave of nostalgia. I may not have encountered rollers and Guildmen in my time there, but this is so clearly a love letter to a city I adore that it’s bound to accrue new fans in its travels. After all, it may involve mechanical cleaning caterpillars but this New York also finds the notion of peas in guacamole a crime against mankind. As is right.

    Interestingly, this alternate world does retain a fair number of pop culture references. So you’ll see mentions of Spider-Man, Legos, Godzilla, etc. I appreciated this. For whatever reason it drives me batty when authors make up fake names for video games or comic book characters. Ms. Ruby even works in a couple

    references, with a mention of Hercules Mulligan and Eliza Hamilton’s life and achievements. There is the occasional made up thing. Angry Bots instead of Angry Birds, for example. And for some reason there are multiple references to The Matrix though it’s never directly named. Still, all told for the most part the book keeps you grounded in reality.

    Jokes. No one ever praises jokes enough. Be serious all you want but a good joke can be worth its weight in gold. Laura Ruby puts a wide array of them in this book. There are the subtle ones that make a comment on our own New York by praising this hypothetical one (example: “… and they could watch for schools of fish darting through the clear blue water of the Hudson”). And like a lot of my favorite children’s fiction, it has jokes that are going to lead to kids looking up further information, just so that they can stay in the know. For example, at one point a kindly therapist asks why Tess draws crows over her heads when she sketches and her reply is, “That’s not a crown… That’s a nimbus of outrage.” My favorite, however, may be Theo’s shirt that says “Schrodinger’s cat is dead” on the front and then a zombie cat on the back with the line, “Schrodinger’s cat is ALIIIIIIVE.” I will be seeking this t-shirt out to buy presently. And for the record, I’m pretty sure there are a lot of references in this book I wasn’t getting. One of the cipherists met in the book is named Omar Khayyam. In light of that I’m fairly certain that Ray Turnage, Adrian Birch, and Imogen Sparks also have meanings worth discovering.

    Of course making it funny is all well and good, and you could have a whole novel built on the excitement of the premise alone. Still, when you meet an author that isn’t afraid to delve a little deeper and say something about humanity in a children’s book, that’s pretty neat. As a result, I took note of a lot of really insightful lines peppered throughout the chapters. Things like, “The biggest problem we have is that people like to fool themselves into thinking that they could never be fooled.” Or someone feeling a sense of relief and, “letting out a rush of breath that felt like the pulling of a splinter.” And for some reason I was really moved by a character with dementia hugging an animal and crying for their dog. When told they never had a dog they respond, “I miss the dog I never had.”

    Now let’s talk about how you set up a mystery novel for kids. There are two ways to go about it. I call the two options The Agatha Christie and The Chasing Vermeer. The Agatha Christie model is the hardest to pull off. You give your readers all the facts, lay them out plain and clear, and let them solve the mystery alongside you. When done well this engages the reader and makes them complicit in the solution. Instant audience identification! Brilliant! Then you have The Chasing Vermeer method. Now the book

    was very popular with kids, so you can’t knock it on that account. It was, however, a book where the mystery and solution was based entirely on coincidences. That’s a frustrating way to set up a novel, and

    isn’t entirely innocent of this methodology. Early on we learn that as you solve the cipher it solves you. Well that’s awfully convenient. It allows for all kinds of coincidences to occur, from finding the right letter at the right time to solving a part of the cipher mere days before the proposed destruction of the characters’ beloved home. Yet for all that, you get the feeling that Ms. Ruby is playing pretty fair with you. Kids will feel pleased to figure out that a mechanical moth is responsible for the partial blackout in town. They may realize what the twins are doing running around keeping track of the position of one star or another in their building. As a result this book is sort of a combination of the best elements of The Agatha Christie and Chasing Vermeer methods put together. I could have done with less coincidences, but at least they’re interstitial.

    Creating alternate Americas is not a job for the lazy. I’ve seen it done well in children’s books and I’ve seen it done magnificently catastrophically poorly. Take, for example, the case of

    by Patricia Wrede, or, as it was known during its publication, “Mammothgate”. In 2009 author Wrede wanted to write a story of an alternate U.S. where magic existed and there had never been a Land Bridge to the North American continent. To avoid pesky racial politics the author had simply erased the Land Bridge and said that there weren’t any Native Americans at all in her fantasy world. Sticky racial politics gone, right? But exchanging mammoths for American Indians (hence the term “Mammothgate”) even in a fantasy is little more than a quick erasing of an entire race simply because they’re inconvenient to your plot. Since the brouhaha that erupted from those choices other authors have tread more carefully. Matthew Kirby in

    incorporated American Indians into much of his plot (even as he reduced female protagonists to mere fainting females). And here, Laura Ruby could have ignored Native Americans entirely. Or, she could have kept their history identical to that of the real America. Instead, Ruby makes the choice to give them different outcomes. At one point in the background we see an Embassy of the Five Hundred Nations, “flying the colorful flags of First Nations from the Abenaki to the Comanche, Pawnee to the Sioux.” We see Native teens dropping lyrics on the street. Later a mention is made of a fictional superhero named “Super Indian” which, quite frankly, doesn’t exactly sound all that different from the real world Apache Chief. It reminds me of the old Harvey Birdman show where Black Lightning is complaining to Aquaman about his name. When Aquaman doesn’t get the problem Black Lightning says, “How would you like it if I called you White Fish?” Same diff.

    As odd as it may seem, the book that this reminded me of the most wasn’t the aforementioned

    or

    but rather

    by Brian Selznick. In both cases you have kids encountering old technology with a secret locked inside, just waiting to be revealed. You also have cases where the villain is almost just as much circumstances as it is a big bad guy. I don’t think I’m spoiling much to tell you that the real estate developer with the bad hair who only dates models and is buying up much of NYC (and has five letters in his name, and, and, and…) never makes a physical appearance on these pages. Not this time around. I suspect as the years go by and these books continue to be published we will find ourselves hoping against hope for him to be defeated in a particularly satisfying manner.

    Greatest Objection to This Book: No libraries. I shall expect this problem to be rectified in future installments. Ditto trips to Staten Island, Queens, and the poor much ignored Bronx. I have a dream that someday someone will set a mystery or fantasy in the Bronx and at long last that borough shall have its due.

    It is one thing to want to write a scavenger hunt. It another thing to set that hunt in a world so like and unalike our own. And when you go even further and pepper your story’s inherent excitement with eloquence, your final product doesn’t shine. It glows from within.

    glows. Oh sure, I would have changed stuff here and there, but on the whole the book is strong, sturdy and for all that it’s over 400 pages it’s pretty unputdownable. It won’t matter if a kid knows Manhattan like the back of their hand or has never even seen 5th Avenue firsthand. The city today is just like the city in this book. It’s a puzzle, and every person that visits it attempts to solve that puzzle for themselves. I don’t know what the future holds for future installments of this series, but I do know that NYC should hire Ms. Ruby as their current publicist. A graceful paean to the best of Manhattan, and a shocking, gripping, nail-biting, intriguing mystery for fans of codes, ciphers, puzzles, and treasure.

    For ages 9-14.

  • Rachel Lightwood

    was just… meh. I went into this expecting the

    -like puzzle hunt the synopsis promised - which is one of my all-time favourite tropes, just FYI - but I was completely underwhelmed. It did not tap into its potential. At all! The plot left me desperately wanting more… but not in a good way. The puzzles and ciphers were not nearly as exciting as I would have hoped. The story lacked urgency, drive, something to really pull me into the story and never want to leave.

    was just… meh. I went into this expecting the

    -like puzzle hunt the synopsis promised - which is one of my all-time favourite tropes, just FYI - but I was completely underwhelmed. It did not tap into its potential. At all! The plot left me desperately wanting more… but not in a good way. The puzzles and ciphers were not nearly as exciting as I would have hoped. The story lacked urgency, drive, something to really pull me into the story and never want to leave. I think this may have been because the world-building was so vague. I was confused what time period this story was meant to be set in? Obviously, it is some sort of alternate New York but how futuristic was it? There was new technology but some of it was more magical than machinery. I desperately wanted more details about all of this and I found the story was not captivating enough to distract me searching for these details. If I was more inclined, I could have put this book down and never picked it up again. I was just not that curious about the cipher’s solution and I should have been. I

    to be that engaged.

    Another massive problem for me was that the characters were so mild. I didn’t connect to any of the protagonists. It was not that they were unlikable, they were just… nothing special. They did not stand out. They just didn’t have much of a

    in the story, you know? Does that even make sense? I guess I am trying to say that they did not make an impression on me in the slightest; even as I was reading, I kept forgetting whose perspective I was reading from. They did not have clear, distinctive voices. I felt very distant from them. I did really appreciate that Ruby refrained from ‘dumbing them down’ - which happens more often in MG than you’d think. The effortless diversity was also nice (one of the MCs was Cuban). I was a little confused if Tess was meant to have anxiety or not, though. It is mentioned that she has ‘spells’ and her habit of catastrophizing situations is a major part of her characterisation. I guess I would have liked it to be a little clearer? I do need to say that I was completely rooting for Jamie’s grandmother. Go her for defying gender

    age stereotypes and completely owning it!

    was underwhelming. It had a fantastic premise but I felt that the world was not as developed as it could've been. The plot had its moment but ultimately failed to capture that urgency that a puzzle hunt needs to engage its reader. Maybe I have just read too many good ones now that I have raised the bar too high? Either way, I wish I had loved this one more than I did. I’ll definitely try the sequel because this had a cruel cliffhanger but I don’t have high hopes.

  • Jessica

    I'm not the sort of person who refers to books at "tales" or calls myself (or other authors) a "storyteller." I'm a writer. You're a writer. We're writers. Authors or writers.

    Except for Laura Ruby. Nope, she's a storyteller. This is a wonderful story, unlike anything you've seen before, and she's telling it to you. I feel the same way about her wonderful, award-winning BONE GAP. Years later I still remember that story. Not the words. The story. This is the same. I don't really remember the words

    I'm not the sort of person who refers to books at "tales" or calls myself (or other authors) a "storyteller." I'm a writer. You're a writer. We're writers. Authors or writers.

    Except for Laura Ruby. Nope, she's a storyteller. This is a wonderful story, unlike anything you've seen before, and she's telling it to you. I feel the same way about her wonderful, award-winning BONE GAP. Years later I still remember that story. Not the words. The story. This is the same. I don't really remember the words of this, but I can feel and imagine the story of this book.

    It's wonderful. It's mysterious. It's adventurous. It's funny. It's scary. Just like any good story, told by a skilled storyteller.

  • Skip

    Tess and Theo Biederman and friend, Jaime Cruz, live in a Morningstar building in New York City. The Morningstar twins came to New York City in the 1800’s and revolutionized the city with engineering feats, such as solar energy, servant robots, skyscrapers, elevators that don’t just go up and down, but sideways, beetle-machines that clean, and an expansive subway system. Then, they vanished, leaving behind a trail of clues to inherit their secrets. Great world-building, and the three feel compel

    Tess and Theo Biederman and friend, Jaime Cruz, live in a Morningstar building in New York City. The Morningstar twins came to New York City in the 1800’s and revolutionized the city with engineering feats, such as solar energy, servant robots, skyscrapers, elevators that don’t just go up and down, but sideways, beetle-machines that clean, and an expansive subway system. Then, they vanished, leaving behind a trail of clues to inherit their secrets. Great world-building, and the three feel compelled to find answers when real estate magnate Darrell Slant evict all residents of their building. Unfortunately, I did not think the puzzles and ciphers were all that interesting, nor did I think the logic in solving them made sense. The story and characters fell short, and nothing, except the world-building and mysterious Ava, were compelling. 3.75 stars.

  • Suzanne

    This book was a pretty fun adventure. I loved that Laura Ruby put in a lot of little facts about New York with a combination of fantasy and made up stuff also. It made for a good read with three very likeable three main characters.

  • Ashley Nuckles

    This was so so so so so good! The pacing overall was pretty slow, but the story was so interesting that I didn't have any problems with it! Middle grade meets National Treasure: ITS ALL I'VE EVER WANTED!

    And THERE ARE GOING TO BE MORE BOOKS? So so SO pumped.


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