Sunday 9 December 2012

Secret Breakers - Orphan of the Flames

The Orphan of the Flames (Secret Breakers) by H.L. Dennis (Hodder/Hachette)
PB RRP $14.99

ISBN 9780340999622 
Reviewed by Hilary Smillie

Orphan of the Flames is the second book in the Secret Breakers series in which a team of code-breakers tries to discover the secret lying behind the ancient Voynich Manuscript. Discovered in 1912 by William Voynich, it was written entirely in a code that has never been deciphered. It was donated to Yale University in 1969 and registered as MS 408.
Team Veritas consists of Brodie, Hunter and Tusia, backed up by several adults, including Mr Bray, Brodie's grandfather. They began their work from Station X at Bletchley Park, the secret code-breaker site of WWII. Level Five of the Ministry of Information (the Black Chamber) wants to prevent anyone breaking the code of MS 408.
Orphan of the Flames opens with Brodie receiving a parcel. Inside is a small dragon statue which turns out to be an incendiary device sent by the Black Chamber to discourage the team from their task. It destroys the house belonging to Brodie's grandfather. Nevertheless, the team carry on, concentrating on a musical box that plays a tune by the composer, Edward Elgar who, significantly, loved codes. Within his music score, The Enigma Variations, Elgar has encoded various people he knew, including his pet dog. He also wrote a coded letter to a girl, Dorabella. The Dorabella Cipher has never been solved.
As the team follow a trail of clues towards breaking the Dorabella Cipher, the storyline weaves around historical incidents such as medieval bookburnings in Florence committed by Savronela, and a mystery boy known as the Orphan of the Flames. On the way the team picks up a new member, Sheldon. They believe solving each complicated mystery code will eventually lead them to the truth about MS 408.
Not being of a mathematical mindset which seems essential to code-breaking, I found this story somewhat of a challenge. There was also a large number of secondary characters which lead me to the conclusion that the series needs to be read from book one to readily appreciate their roles. One asthmatic character was nicknamed Sicknote, and to me quite revolting, but kids may love it.
The strength of the storyline definitely lies with the code-cracking and the author's love of history gives it an educational touch which is deftly incorporated. A plus is the interesting reference at the back of the book describing the authentic historical elements which were the inspiration behind this six-book series.
Orphan of the Flames is sure to appeal to readers who love puzzles and deciphering mystery codes. 

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