23 March 2015

The Cipher by John C Ford

I haven't had the easiest time finding YA thrillers. I suppose a large part of that is the fact that most of the typical thriller protagonists - spies, journalists, government employees, Harvard professors with weird hair - tend to be adults. So when I stumbled across a blurb for THE CIPHER, I leapt at the opportunity to read it.

Smiles (Robert Smylie, Jr.) is the only son of Robert Smylie, the founder of Alyce Systems, which revolutionized internet encryption. He's a bit of a wash-out, though: his math skills have never been sufficient to allow him to pursue his dad's line of work, and he's never had the passion for anything else, so he's drifted through life, never trying anything for more than a week or two, never truly taking risks on anything or striving for anything.

He's living in a dumpy apartment close to MIT, and his only friend is his nerdy neighbor, Ben, a math savant; he and his girlfriend, Melanie, are on the ropes; and, to top it off, his dad is dying of cancer, his stepmom (who raised him) died in a car crash months before, and his birth mother abandoned him when he was two.

All in all, despite the seven million dollars he has coming to him on his eighteenth birthday, his life sucks.

All that changes when Ben makes a discovery that could undo any internet encryption, plunging the world into chaos - and bringing Alyce Systems crumbling down.

Structurally, THE CIPHER followed in the footsteps of most other thrillers I've read, which used third person POV, fairly close. Smiles and Melanie were the POV characters for the majority of the novel, though Ben had one or two as well. Despite Smiles's affluent upbringing, he was easy enough to relate to: he wasn't spoiled, at least materially, though his laziness could be frustrating. Melanie was a delight, as she was all-around smarter and more competent than Smiles, though the inevitable youthful mistakes certainly caught up to her.

THE CIPHER did a great job keeping me guessing, ratcheting up the stakes, all the way to the end - and that is when it fell flat, at least for me. I'm usually okay with moral ambiguity, with messy endings, though they're not necessarily my favorite. This time, though, everything felt so unresolved. I wasn't sure if anyone had grown or learned a lesson, or if their natural inclinations simply won out and everything ended as it always was going to.

Hard to say. I liked THE CIPHER, but I didn't love it. But that's okay. It was still a worthwhile read.