york: the shadow cipher

Deckle edges. If you're a book worm like I am, you've probably come across them before. The uncut, random-looking pages (instead of a smooth cut) give a book that certain "something." Deckle edges convinced me to purchase my own hard copy of Laura Ruby’s York, and I'm so glad they did. This book could be defined many different ways (spec fic, alternate history, diverse sci-fi, a cross between The Mysterious Benedict Society and Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan...), but the thing that stands out to me is that it is incredibly, unbelievably of the moment. I know how long it takes to make a book, but if I didn't I'd think it was written two weeks ago. York is important and empathetic along with being smart and entertaining, and I think it might just be the perfect book for this year, for everyone.

york by laura ruby book cover
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 city they constructed, at the end of which was promised a treasure beyond all imagining. By the present day, however, the puzzle has never been solved, and the greatest mystery of the modern world is little more than a tourist attraction.

Tess and Theo Biedermann and their friend Jaime Cruz live in a Morningstarr apartment house—until 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. And if Tess, Theo and Jaime want to save their home, they have to prove that the Old York Cipher is real. Which means they have to solve it.

From National Book Award Finalist Laura Ruby comes a visionary epic set in a New York City at once familiar and wholly unexpected.

Tess and Theo Biedermann and their neighbor Jaime Cruz live in a city that is like New York City, but not. In this version of York the famous Morningstarr twins started inventing and building a fantastical array of dwellings, transportation, and life-like machines in the late 18th century, and the present-day result is a steampunk-like mashup of technological wonder. When they left, the Morningstarrs also left a trail of clues to rumored treasure – the mysterious Old York Cipher. For Tess, Theo, and Jaime, solving the Cipher may be the only way to keep their home safe from an avaricious real estate developer – but the clock is ticking. Will they solve the Cipher and save their building in time?  

One of the things that this book did so well was establish the motivations of each of the main characters in an authentic way. Ruthless real estate developer Darnell Slant wants to make money, and doesn’t care who he displaces (sound familiar?) or whether he destroys history. His hirelings Stoop and Pinscher possibly want something even more sinister, and they’re the everyday ‘face of evil.’ The Biedermann twins want to keep their home and life, their parents want them to face reality, and the whole family is still reeling from the absence of grandfather Biedermann, the one-time occupant of the building penthouse and former president of the Cipher Society. Jaime wants his father in his life, good things for his Mima, and to draw superheroes. Six-year-old neighbor girl Cricket wants to be a spy. And what did the long-gone Morningstarrs want? Why did they set up this treasure hunt? It’s a question that Tess, Theo and Jaime keep asking themselves, and bits and pieces of answers emerge throughout the story. The grand themes? The line between technology and life, injustice (racial, gender, socioeconomic), the definition of family (in its different forms) and home, and erasing the past for the sake of the future.

Now on to the things that I liked particularly (a different kettle of fish from admiring a well-constructed plot & characters, or great writing!)(which this book has in spades): parents who are alive (how many times do you see that in a kidlit book?!)! A diverse main character and secondary characters! A main character with anxiety and a service animal. A cool map of alternate New York and great descriptions of that feeling of insignificance you get in big cities. Social justice (pro-immigrant, pro-education, pro-affordable housing) baked in. Added to that, this is just such a smart book, with believably smart characters. Author Ruby doesn’t hold back – her characters use big words and think big ideas because they are intelligent, and Ruby obviously believes her readers are as well. I love that trust in the reader, and I think readers will sense it immediately.

I cannot forget to mention Chapter 7 (and then later Chapter 27), or as I am calling it, “In which we find out that six-year old Cricket (real name: Zelda) is HILARE” (hilare = hilarious without those pesky final two syllables)(a made-up word for the modern age which I am probably too old to use, but whatever). I want to be Cricket when I grow up. WHAT A RIOT. One of my favorite lines from a York (it consistently made me laugh out loud, btw) is in Cricket’s voice, from page 122: “What would a deathmetalhead raccoon wear? A helmet of course. Probably one with antlers.” I die.

What did I dislike? One solitary thing, folks. And that is that it took until Chapter 2 (really Chapter 3 because there was a prologue) to get to the hook. Until then it’s a lot of set-up and I wasn’t sure why I should care. BUT ONCE THERE, well. I was on my way.

In all, York hit all of the sweet spots: it was a funny, intelligent, and exciting read, and it made me think, feel, and reflect. I hope you’ll give it a chance!

Recommended for: middle grade readers on up, and anyone who likes mystery, alternate cities, and clever speculative fiction.


Kristen M. said...

Sold, sold, sold. I hadn't even heard of this one either so YAY! new book to look for! :)

Anonymous said...

I heard about this one pre-pub and then forgot about it. I was very excited to grab a copy at work right after I saw your glowing review!

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