The Shadow Cipher: York, Book 1

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The Shadow Cipher: York, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Puzzles, codes, laughs in exciting alt-New York mystery.

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age 10+
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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Aimed at brainy kids who like puzzles, codes, museums, and history with their imaginative fiction. The dialogue features phrases in Spanish, Yiddish, and other languages. While the story's set in an alternative version of New York, in many ways the parallel worlds have a lot in common, from history (slavery, 19th-century slums) to familiar artists in the museums and familiar landmarks around town. Readers' brains will also get a workout as the teen protagonists try to break codes, solve puzzles, and otherwise figure out the mysterious message before it's too late.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about family, friendship, teamwork, making the most of your talents -- plus being smart and using your brains for good.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Tess, Theo, and Jaime are all smart, determined, and good problem-solvers. They may be living in an alternate world, but many of their issues are very relatable -- for example, a beloved grandparent with dementia, losing the family home, being considered the weird kids at school. They don't always obey their adult caregivers as they sneak around museums, pick locks, dodge villains, and take off on assorted adventures, but their motives are good. Some adult characters are horrible and creepy, but others, notably the elder Biedermanns and Jaime's grandmother, are strong and supportive, with hidden qualities that sometimes prove useful.


The Shadow Cipher opens in the 19th century as a murderous thug stalks a seemingly helpless young woman on the streets of New York (it doesn't end well for him, as she breaks his finger and calls the cops on him). The kids' forays into various parts of town as they try to solve the Cipher bring them into contact with scary characters, from street gangs to the mysterious operators of the Underway transit system, and some of their enemies are perfectly willing to kill to get what they want.


A few references to butts. The especially ugly color of some walls is called "pee yellow."


Somehow a number of products from our world also exist in this version of alt-New York, often with differences -- for example, the Spider-Man in this world is named Miles Morales. Theo wins a Lego contest.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Some of the adventures take the kids to bad parts of town (past and present), some of which are full of taverns, drunks, and other dubious characters.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Shadow Cipher, the first installment in Laura Ruby's middle-grade series, is set in a parallel-universe version of New York, one that took a different direction at the turn of the 19th century when immigrant twins harnessed mysterious power and built amazing technology. It's exciting, funny, dense -- and demands a reader who appreciates moments like the young protagonist looking at his alphabet cereal and saying, "Hey! I spelled Fibonacci!" Violence is a constant threat as characters in the past flee slavery, murder, and other dangers, while in the present the 12- and 13-year-old heroes venture into dangerous situations, try to outwit assorted goons, and do more as they try to solve the Cipher and save their home. The story's alt-New York world is full of diverse characters: Its own version of Spider-Man is named Miles Morales; the main characters are dark-skinned and big-haired (Jaime has dreadlocks); Jaime's Latino and the twins are Jewish. It's packed with puzzles, historical detail, in-jokes about academic concepts, and other bits of knowledge, which may be off-putting to some readers but will delight others.

User Reviews

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Kid, 11 years old January 2, 2018

Very good book

York, book one is a very good book. When I first started reading it, I didn’t want to stop reading because I always wanted to know what happens next. Very creat... Continue reading

What's the story?

Back in the 1800s, in this alternate world, the brilliant, eccentric Morningstarr twins created technology that transformed New York, where they'd landed as young, penniless immigrants. Then they vanished, leaving a message about THE SHADOW CIPHER -- a series of clues that would bring wonders and riches beyond belief to the solver. After a few decades without success, New Yorkers pretty much decided the Cipher was just a story for the tourists, but a few determined souls kept trying up to the present day, including Tess and Theo Biedermann's grandfather. The twins and their friend Jaime Cruz live in an apartment building built by the Morningstarrs themselves -- now about to be demolished by a developer -- and the kids decide that the only hope of saving the family home and the Morningstarr legacy lies in solving the Cipher that's baffled seekers for more than a century.

Is it any good?

Laura Ruby's middle-grade alt-New York series opens with an imaginative premise, engaging characters, a suspenseful plot, oddball brilliance, relatable issues, and quite a few laughs. Loaded with math humor, historic trivia, and a barrage of puzzles, codes, and ciphers, York: The Shadow Cipher won't be for everybody, but this dense, demanding, time-hopping adventure is a rewarding read for those who persist and offers the promise of more to come.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how YorkThe Shadow Cipher involves deciphering codes and solving puzzles. Do you think this is really interesting, or do you wish the author would just get on with the action instead?

  • Like steampunk, York's world took a different turn from ours because a different technology came to the fore in the distant past. How would your life be different if some technology you use every day had never been invented? How might you work around the problem?

  • In The Shadow Cipher, Jaime's father is away from home working on a solar-energy project in Africa. Do you know kids whose parents have jobs that take them away for weeks or months at a time? How do they deal with it?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love math, science, and adventure

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