'It was hard to sketch in the dark, but he did it anyway, quick lines that limned his thoughts.' Jamie, p 388.
I ❤️ (New) York*
I love a big , thick book that looks like it's going to keep me engrossed for hours. I love even more when it has 'Book 1' on its cover. I love a beautiful, intriguing jacket. I even love US editions with those crazy deckle edges that we never see on UK publications.
I love dry American humour and droll repartee. I love books that burst with original imagination and invention. I love authors who take a regular genre and transform it into something fresh and sparkling. I love characters that leap straight off the page and into your affections. I love books that entertain but also make you think, ones that don't go where you think they're going. I especially love truly inclusive books that unobtrusively reinforce the unique value of every individual. I love a strange, enigmatic world of fantasy that bides so close to our own that its presence limnes our lives, like a sketch drawn in the dark.
In short, I love York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby. It has all of these things. In spades. (Are you getting the idea?)
A mystery tradition
In its early stages, this book has the feel of a US kids' mystery story, much in the well-loved tradition of The Westing Game and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Basically, three kids try to solve an old cypher and find a treasure that will prevent their beloved apartment building home from being destroyed by an unscrupulous developer. Yet from the outset this novel has two outstanding features that lift it head and shoulders above just another fathom-the-clues story and render it a very fine book indeed in its own right.
New York, not New York
One is the delightful amount of creative invention that has gone into building the book's world, or more specifically its city. This is a New York which has many reference points to the real location, but is embellished with many creations that are part steampunk, part Sci-fi, part fantasy. These are a supposed legacy from Theresa and Theodore Morningstarr, genius inventors and developers of the city from the 19th Century, as well as the instigators of the titular cypher. Their amazing additions include the 'Underway', a weird railway, that runs not only underground, but often emerges on fantastic raised trackways which loop and twist spectacularly around the city's skyscrapers. The children's home building, also a Morningstarrs original, has an escalator that moves horizontally and well as vertically and takes irregular, erratic routes between floors. And then the streets are kept clean by 'rollers', mechanical creatures that emerge from traps in the roadway, gather the trash and roll it away, much in the manner of scarab beetles. And on top of all this, protagonists Tess and Theo (who are themselves named after the Morningstarr twins) have an odd, giant lynx-cat pet, who also plays a prominent role in the story.
The continual, often almost casual, introduction of these fantastic creations is endlessly intriguing, and a triumph of invention by Laura Ruby. Equally enthralling is the way that the otherwise very realistic, contemporary characters, living (to them) very real city lives, take completely for granted what are (to us) mind-boggling aspects of their milieu.
And that thought nicely introduces the other great delight of this book. Its young characters constitute just about the strongest, liveliest, most entertaining and engaging portraits of American kids that I remember encountering since I delighted in the books of Betsy Byars a good few years ago. Their banter is a frequent joy and sometimes laugh-aloud hilarious. They are also very distinct and 'real' as personalities; it is made easy for us as readers to identify with them, to care about what happens to them. Theo is a boy who, in our world, could very well end up diagnosed as 'on the autistic spectrum'. His twin, Tess, becomes so obsessed with totally speculative risks that she could almost be called 'paranoid'. Their friend, Jamie, living with his Grandmother, has to cope without parents, his mother dead and his father long-term absent.
But this is, thankfully, not a book that labels children. Rather it shows them as being the totally credible and worthy heroes of a story, each accepted, each with his or her very valuable contribution to make; each, in their particular way loving and deservedly loved.
And then there is young Cricket. Well, I think I'd better leave you to meet her for yourself. Enjoy! I know you will.
Many of the adult characters are drawn with equal richness and wonderfully represent a society of different beliefs and ethnicities. This is a book that, without being about diversity issues, reinforces and celebrates inclusion, the fact that it is good to be different. Few messages are more important to put before our children. To have them presented, as they are here, with quiet conviction, and with tolerance and acceptance as simply part of the way things are, is wonderfully welcome.
As befits an exciting children's adventure, though, it does a pretty good line in villains, and in character shocks too.
The mystery of the mystery
But it gradually becomes apparent that this is not all there is to York. Not by a long way. A book that starts out feeling like one thing shifts intosomething quite other, something far more complex. Mystery is layered on mystery, enigma on enigma. And it is through the puzzle, through the cipher, that the mysteries of the book become deeper and stranger, even as does the city, the world in which everything happens. More and more disturbs the children, and the reader too: the almost inhuman presence of the 'Guildmen' on the Underway, the terrifying behaviour of the trains when the children ride a prescribed sequence of line, a machine that seems organically to metamorph into something quite other. Then there is the pervasive presence of the deeply enigmatic, long dead (?) heiress of the Morningstarrs. All becomes darker.
Our young trio start by supposing they are solving clues, following a trail, but soon come to think that the solutions they unearth are, in Tess's words, 'way too adorable' Clues and solutions seem to fall into place too neatly, too easily, almost of their own accord. But then that's the point. What is happening to the children becomes more the mystery than the mystery itself. Theo questions: 'Has the treasure been waiting there for us to discover? Or are we somehow creating the puzzle ourselves, building it out of the choices we make?' But then are they really their own choices? Is their unfolding journey a fiendishly clever legacy from the past or something even more disturbing? It is all deliciously, thrillingly intriguing.
And yet, through all this of this Laura Ruby's story remains poignantly human. When the residents of 354 W. 73rd. come to the point of actually having to move out of their homes it is near heartbreaking. 'More than that, what about fairness? What about justice? What about right and wrong? What about Grandpa? What about us?' (Tess, p 414)
York has many other layers of fascination and illumination too. Despite all the sci-fi fantasy embellishments, it somehow still comes across as a love song to New York, and a plea for recognition of its heritage, for the contribution of all those from the past who have made it what it is. 'Maybe saving their own homes wasn't the point anymore. Maybe the point was to save a piece of history,' says Jamie on page 386. There are important aspects of the story that leads us all, perhaps, to reflect on our homes and what they meant to us, wherever we live.
And the climax of the book is truly devastating. It is not at all what either characters or reader expected. But no more of that.
And now . . .
If this sequence continues as strongly as it has started, then it could well turn out to be one of our finest and most important works of children's speculative fiction.
Book 2, please. Soon. Bring it on. 'All that opens is not a door.'
For non-US readers ONLY ☠️
Of course this book comes from America, so it's written in American and we Brits have to get past a few weird words now and then. Any language that consistently misses the 's' off 'maths' and then goes and sticks a totally redundant one on the end of 'Lego' has to take a bit of getting used to. But it’s mostly not that hard, honestly. Probably even less so for children brought up on a media diet that includes numerous US TV shows and movies. And the payoff is well worth any effort. It is a big book inside as well as out, a truly fine read - and a hugely entertaining one. In any case it is good to get a feel of lives that are at the same time so like and so different from our own. And in fairness calling Lego bricks 'Legos' is at least shorter. (Although just calling them 'Lego' is shorter still.)
*I love the old one as well, which is close to where I live - but that's (literally) a different story.