York by Laura Ruby

York, Book One, The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby.

This middle grade alternate history and steampunk-ish fantasy had a few awkward phrases and descriptions, and I’m not at all sure that all the loose ends were gathered together by the end of the book. (Understandable, since it’s the first book in a series.) However, Ms. Ruby tells such an absorbing and delightful story that I can forgive a few minor bobbles.

“The city had many nicknames: Gotham. Metropolis. The Shining Starr. The Big Apple. The City That Never Sleeps. These nicknames were not always accurate.”

The main character, the protagonist, of this novel is the City, New York City. But it’s a New York City changed and perhaps improved by the benevolence and inventiveness of the Morningstarr twins, Teresa and Theodore, during the first half of the nineteenth century. The Morningstarrs “performed architectural and mechanical wizardry to make New York City the most dazzling city in the world . . . the gleaming metropolis of the future.” Then, they disappeared, leaving “their land and property to a trust in the city’s name” and “a parting gift: a sort of puzzle, or treasure hunt.” The Morningstarr twins were definitely imaginative and eccentric, and for the next hundred and fifty years and more after their disappearance in 1854, people searched diligently for the clues that would lead them to the fabled Marningstarr treasure. But no one found it.

Enter Tess and Theo Biedermann, also twins, but in the present day, twenty-first century. They live with their family in a Morningstarr building, one of the six buildings left in the city of those that were planned and built by the Morningstarrs. Unfortunately, for the sake of history and for the Biedermanns, there’s an evil real estate developer and millionaire, Darnell Slant, who wants to buy up all of the Morningstarr buildings and make them into over-priced cracker box apartment buildings. Can Tess, Theo, and their new friend, Jaime, solve the Morningstarr cipher/puzzle and find the treasure and stop Darnell Slant?

It sounds fairly standard: evil real estate developer, a puzzle to solve, a race against time. However, the alternate history and steampunk elements of the plot and setting keep it fresh and interesting. The pacing is good, for the most part, and I didn’t really know what to expect most of the time. There are echoes of and allusions to Newbery award winner The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin and New York City history and the movie National Treasure, probably other cultural artifacts, too. Those are the ones I noticed and appreciated.

And the book includes some interesting philosophical speculation, especially in regards to life and technology and puzzle-solving. Is the process of solving a puzzle or playing a game its own reward? Or is it the winning or the treasure at the end that counts? Is any treasure worth any cost? How do you go about counting the cost when you don’t know what the treasure is? What does it mean to “be yourself” and to “believe in yourself”? Does faith in some object or journey create its own fulfillment? What is the difference between living beings and non-living artifacts of technology? Can a machine come to have life and agency? Can it respond to its environment and make decisions? How?

York was a book well worth the time spent reading its 476 pages. Fans of steampunk or New York City or puzzling and ciphers or alternate history adventure would do well to check it out.

Educator’s Guide to York from Walden Press.

Review of York at Charlotte’s Library.

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This book may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

1 thought on “York by Laura Ruby

  1. York was such a fun read, did remind me of Westing Game, but I like your comparison with National Treasure. Lots to ponder, but I wished that some of the loose ends were tied up a bit more.

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