Lynn: Just when I started to feel a little jaded—March does that to me—I read Laura Ruby’s wonderful new book, York: The Shadow Cipher (May 2017). This new series-opener is the perfect antidote to my grumpy case of the blahs that accompany the mud, temperature swings, and general brownness of my least-favorite month.
The story opens in an alternate New York, in 1855. It is a city transformed by the genius of the two mysterious Morningstarr Twins, Theodore and Theresa. Designers, inventors and mechanical geniuses, the two built glittering towers, the Underway and bridges, created parks, and developed a mysterious power source. Ingenious machines like window-washing snails kept the city gleaming and the population pampered for 66 years. Then, just as mysteriously, the twins disappeared, leaving all their property and land in a trust to the city. They also left behind a puzzle or treasure hunt. The first clue was published in the papers, and the subsequent clues would eventually lead to the “greatest treasure known to man.”
Then the story moves forward in time to the present. The cipher remains unsolved, and general interest in it has waned. Much of the fabulous Morningstarr creations continue to operate flawlessly, but a wealthy real estate developer wants to tear down many of the buildings and move the city into the 21st century. Tess and Theo Biedermann and neighbor Jaime Cruz and his grandmother learn that their building has been purchased and will be torn down. It shakes them all to the core. Their only salvation, they decide, is to solve the cipher and use the treasure to save their home. And we’re off and running!
My synopsis barely scrapes the surface of just how fun this book is. I was in awe of the labyrinthine plot (is the cipher somehow shaping itself ?), of the vibrant and engaging characters, of the intensely intriguing world-building, and of Ruby’s wonderfully descriptive writing. My arc is full of underlines, marking perfect turn of phrases. Just one example is Tess’s description of herself as wearing a “nimbus of outrage.” Ha! Aren’t we all these days? I’ve survived March, but my nimbus of outrage is still hanging around.
Cindy: It was March when Lynn wrote her review, but it was April when I finally took this book on my spring break and caught up with her—and I agree with all her raving. The Morningstarr inventions are fun. The elevator at 354 W. 73rd Street takes a convoluted and changing path during each ride, giving Willy Wonka’s glass elevator a run for its money. The Rollers that clean up trash are fascinating. The clues to the old mystery might fall into place easily, but as Sarah Hunter points out in her Booklist review, Ruby explains this away with a believable reason that the reader wanting to know more about the power the cipher might have over its solution. A mystery with a steampunk and fantasy influence, this story is as unique, delightful, and complex as one of the Morningstarr inventions. Lynn and I are not going to be the only ones eagerly waiting for the next installment, once middle-grade readers get their hands on it.