John C. Ford’s young adult novel, “The Cipher,” is a fun, fast-paced thriller featuring several flawed yet likeable characters, a high technology concept, and some explosive family secrets.
Teenager Robert “Smiles” Smylie Jr. is both gifted and cursed with the advantages of wealth. Although he has the financial security of a trust fund, he struggles with life. He has little purpose or direction. His relationship with his girlfriend Melanie is on the rocks. And he doesn’t know how to live up to his successful father, who invented an encryption code that keeps much of the Internet secure, and founded the company Alyce Systems.
Smiles’ genius roommate, Ben, starts the plot moving when he tells Smiles that he has created an algorithm that solves the Riemann Hypothesis. Ben’s discovery could undermine Internet security, and possibly disrupt Alyce Systems. Smiles sees an opportunity to leave his mark on the world. He enlists Ben in a risky plan to sell the algorithm to the NSA.
Meanwhile, in an interconnecting plotline, Melanie begins to track down some buried family secrets and Alyce Systems company secrets.
The last half of the novel is exciting, as Ford keeps the plot moving. There are double-crosses, a kidnapping, a new love interest for Smiles, exposed secrets and several twists as the novel heads towards its conclusion.
I liked that the characters all have to wrestle with the fallout from large decisions that have, knowingly or unknowingly, haunted their lives. Ford ultimately combines this fallout into a just conclusion for all the characters. Note I say a “just” conclusion. Not everyone gets what they set out to acquire. Ford explores limits of what people will do to get rich and achieve success.