Printz winner Ruby’s middle-grade series opener gracefully tackles magic, history, and gentrification.
When a potato-faced real estate mogul buys their historic, rent-controlled building, three middle schoolers—bushy-haired, olive-skinned Jewish twins Tess and Theo and brown-skinned Trinidadian-Cuban neighbor Jaime—band together to solve a centuries-old mystery. At once thoroughly modern (a solar-powered city filled with a genuinely diverse cast of characters) and charmingly old-fashioned (steampunk machinery, ciphers, and a mystery at times reminiscent of Ellen Raskin or E.L. Konigsburg), Ruby’s vision of New York brims with innovative details that perfectly support her themes of friendship, family, and history. Emotionally fragile, highly intelligent Tess and Theo are balanced by the less-volatile, artistically gifted Jaime: all are complex, nuanced adolescents. They throw themselves into the Morningstarr Cipher, named for the twins who built much of New York’s astounding infrastructure (elevators that go sideways, subways that climb buildings), hoping to discover a treasure—but the Cipher “tr[ies] to solve you” as you solve it. This first volume opens up an ever expanding sense of magic, culminating in a bittersweet ending that promises bigger things to come. It’s a doorstopper, but other than one brief dip, the pacing keeps the pages turning, while the details reward close reading.
The past informs the present as the review informs readers: don’t let this one go. (Mystery/fantasy. 10-15)