Book Club Review: “The Shadow Cipher”

18806245We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘genre mash-ups’, where we pick two random genres and try to find a book that fits both. 

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “The Shadow Cipher” by Laura Ruby

Publishing Info: Walden Pond Press, May 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: Audiobooks from the library!

Genre Mash-up: Science Fiction and Mystery

Book Description: 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.

Serena’s Thoughts

I don’t read much middle grade fiction. Yes, technically the Animorphs started out as a middle grade series, but I’m pretty sure most of us can agree that it pretty quickly veers into YA territory with the gruesome and serious nature of much of it. And there are a few examples of MG fiction (even some recently, like “A Flight of Swans”) that do appeal to me, but by and large, it’s just not my jam. With this in mind, it’s really hard for me to review this book objectively, since much of it simply didn’t connect with me as I’m just not the correct reader for this book. So, with the criticisms to come, keep in mind that this book may still very well appeal to many actual middle grade readers and plenty of adults who like to read this age level of fiction. I can definitely see how it might!

To start with some pros, however, I did like the general concept of the story, how simply adding two brilliant inventors into a time period could effect all of history that follows. It’s an extreme example of the butterfly effect. I was also very much into the opening chapter of the book that was set in the 1800s and seemed to be presenting a sort of “steam punk” like world. This portion of the story also featured adult protagonists, so that also probably had something to do with my preference for it.

I also liked the diversity of the main cast of characters and a look into what life would be like growing up in a huge city such as New York. I grew up in a tiny rural town, so the idea of running around a massive city on my own at age 13 is hard to comprehend.

But, those pros aside, this book just didn’t hit the mark for me. For one thing, I struggled with the mash up of science fiction technologies alongside other elements of the world that were unchanged. There seemed to be a really random assortment of new inventions that would simply pop up here and there. And yet, in other parts of life, that same advancement was no where to be seen. It made it feel less like a naturally developed world, but instead a collection of weird concepts, none connecting to another in any fundamental way.

I also thought the book was incredibly slow and the urgency was lacking. This is a long book for a middle grade title, and much of the middle of it just felt like a slog. Not only did it take a while to even get into solving the mysteries, but once there, the sense of urgency never seemed to connect with the actual situation. I was left feeling kind of cold and uninterested about it all. If you’re going to have a book that revolves around solving mysteries, it really needs to revolve around those things, and this just didn’t feel like that. I also really didn’t like that, going in, I knew the mystery wasn’t going to resolve, as this is the first book in a series. All of the mystery series that I read and enjoy will feature the same cast of characters, but the mysteries themselves are solved in each book, with maybe one or two other through-lines as far as the stories go. I just don’t like books where the mystery itself is left unresolved at the end.

So, yeah. This book wasn’t for me. That said, all of my complaints are very subjective and revolve around my own reading preferences. Nothing in the book is actually truly objectionable. The characters are solid, the world is interesting, and the mysteries are clever. If you like middle grade fiction, this book may very well work for you. But if middle grade books are more hit and miss for you, I would skip this one.

Kate’s Thoughts

I read Laura Ruby’s “Bone Gap” a few years back, and while I understood how people would love it as much as they did, I found it to be ‘pretty okay’ at best. So when “The Shadow Cipher” (not “York”; I’m going to touch on that in a bit) was our book club selection, I was hesitantly optimistic that I’d get another read that was ‘pretty okay’. The problem is, “The Shadow Cipher” had a number of things working against it for me, and because of that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped I would.

But first I want to address the things that I did like, because there were a few stand out aspects: The first is that, like Serena mentioned above, I liked the diversity of and the somewhat unique issues that faced our main characters. One of the biggest threats in this story is that Theo and Tessa Biedermann could lose their home because of a real estate developer’s greed. Gentrification is absolutely a huge problem in large urban cities, especially in our version of New York City, so I appreciated that Ruby brought this issue up within this story, and showed the faces of those who bear the negative brunt of ‘progress’. She addressed it in a way that felt tangible to a middle grade audience, and yet didn’t feel TOO heavy handed or spoon fed to them. What we see are children who are afraid of losing their home, which shows a very human cost to the ever changing landscape of real estate in regards to the less privileged. I also enjoyed the alternate world aspect of this book. I’m a huge sucker for stories that are KIND OF in our world, but wax poetic on how the world could have turned out if one thing had been different. While I’m not totally certain that Ruby completely reconciled the science fiction/steampunk concepts with her world, I liked seeing the effort made.

But, like Serena, I too had a hard time with the pacing and seeming lack of urgency within this story. In other similar tales like “The Westing Game,” the puzzle that the characters are trying to solve is usually at the forefront and very much the driven focus of the novel. When a new piece is solved, it is on to the next. In “The Shadow Cipher,” it felt like it was slowly flitting from place to place. I feel that with their home on the line these kids would be far more rushed (I think about “The Goonies” and how they are so scared about losing their homes that they go on a crazy whirlwind of a treasure hunt that always feels like it’s moving).

My final criticism is probably far more petty and pedantic than it needs to be, and has less to do with the story itself. Look at that cover, folks. If you saw that cover, what would YOU think the title of this book is? The confusing graphic design made me unreasonably annoyed. I know that doesn’t have much to do with the book itself, but it really frustrated me and we had a long discussion about it during book club.

Overall, “The Shadow Cipher” really wasn’t my kind of book, and while I don’t think that it should necessarily turn readers away if they think it sounds like their kind of book, be warned that it may be a long read.

Serena’s Rating 5: Not objectively bad, but definitely not for me. The world-building didn’t come together in the way I would have liked, and the story itself lacked a sense of urgency.

Kate’s Rating 5: Though the characters were fine and I liked the alternate universe angle, “The Shadow Cipher” was too slow for the kind of mystery it was and just didn’t appeal to me.

Book Club Questions

  1. Did you find the alternative timeline in this book believable and well conceived?
  2. In this alternate version of our world, there are small changes that are mentioned in the culture of society (such as the superhero movie “Storm 2”). What do you think about these small changes and do you think that Ruby was trying to say something with them?
  3. “The Shadow Cipher” is similar to other books with themes of kids trying to solve a puzzle such as “The Westing Game” and “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.” How do you think that it compares to other books in the genre?
  4. This book is generally for older middle grade and YA readers, but it covers fairly topical social justice subjects like social disparity and gentrification. Do you think the target audience will make connections about what Ruby is trying to say?
  5. What did you think of Tess, Theo, and Jaime as our protagonists? Were they believable characters?
  6. This is the first in a series. Do you think you’ll move on to the next book? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Shadow Cipher” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books with Cityscapes”, and “Exploring YA Fantasy and Sci-Fi”.

Find “The Shadow Cipher” at your library using WorldCat!

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