York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby

A promising upper-middle grade series gets underway with alternative history, fascinating puzzles, and one big mystery.

The Shadow Cipher (York #1) by Laura Ruby.  HarperCollins, 2017, 476 pages.

Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12

Recommended for: ages 10-15

Theodore and Teresa Morningstar made New York the dazzling city it is, with its serpentine Underway, solar-powered streets and windows and mechanized insects that keep the street spotless.  When the twins disappeared in 1855, they left behind a final puzzle, the Old York Cipher: one clue leading to a chain of mystery that would unlock the greatest treasure ever hidden.  The puzzles were never solved and the Cipher is now commonly considered an elaborate trick.  Only the Old Cipher Society takes it seriously—and Tess and Theo Biederman.  Their Grandpa Ben was such a Morningstarr enthusiast he passed on the founder’s names to his grandchildren and served as president of the OCS.  Until he had to go into residential care, Grandpa occupied the penthouse apartment of their building, which happens to be one of the five remaining Morningstarr structures.  The Biederman twins’ interest in the Cipher becomes relevant when Darnell Slant, an aggressive real-estate developer, buys their apartment house and gives them 30 days to evacuate.  Or everyone assumes it was Slant.  At any rate, the Cipher is no longer a game—it’s the only way they can keep their home.  All they have to do is solve all the puzzles and find the treasure.

Mystery runs deep and wide: What happen to the Morningstarr twins?  What connection does Grandpa Ben have with them?  Is this just a treasure hunt?  Grandpa used to say that the Cipher solves you as you solve it—maybe we’re actually looking for a deeper secret.  Further volumes will hopefully uncover the depths, but there’s plenty going on at the surface—and by the end, Tess, Theo and their friend Jaime Cruz know they’re not the only ones looking for a solution.  Have they bitten off more than they can chew?  Has New York City?  Has the world?  Intriguing plot twists, standout characters and striking style make this a series to watch.

Cautions: None

Overall rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

  • Artistic value: 5
  • Worldview/moral value: 4


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Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.


  1. Meredith Burton on August 8, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    Thank you so very much for this review! I have been debating whether to read this one. Bone Gap, (one of her YA books), left a profound impression on me that I’ve never been able to forget. Roza was the most vivid and relatable heroine in a “fairy tale” I had ever come across, and her terrifying predicament and courage mesmerized me. I didn’t agree with every aspect of the story, but it’s a book I return too every now and then. It’s the first confrontation between good and evil in a “secular” book that actually made me cry.

    Wasn’t sure how Ruby would handle a middle grade story, but it sounds like she’s quite diverse. Looking forward to reading this.

    • Janie on August 10, 2017 at 8:18 am

      We always appreciate your feedback, Meredith!

  2. Preston on February 26, 2019 at 5:10 am

    I was hoping to find the theme for this book (I have to do a book report) What do you think is the theme?

    • Janie on February 28, 2019 at 6:29 am

      It’s been too long since we read it, Preston.

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