The Cipher by Isabella Maldonado, Book Review: Graphic crime

The Cipher is the graphic first novel in author Isabella Maldonado’s bestselling FBI crime thriller series starring Nina Guerrera. Read my full review.

The Cipher Book Synopsis

The Cipher Book Review - Isabella Maldonado

Nina Guerrera Book 1

To a cunning serial killer, she was the one that got away. Until now…

FBI Special Agent Nina Guerrera escaped a serial killer’s trap at sixteen. Years later, when she’s jumped in a Virginia park, a video of the attack goes viral. Legions of new fans are not the only ones impressed with her fighting skills. The man who abducted her eleven years ago is watching. Determined to reclaim his lost prize, he commits a grisly murder designed to pull her into the investigation…but his games are just beginning. And he’s using the internet to invite the public to play along.

His coded riddles may have made him a depraved social media superstar—an enigmatic cyber-ghost dubbed “the Cipher”—but to Nina he’s a monster who preys on the vulnerable. Partnered with the FBI’s preeminent mind hunter, Dr. Jeffrey Wade, who is haunted by his own past, Nina tracks the predator across the country. Clue by clue, victim by victim, Nina races to stop a deadly killer while the world watches.

(Thomas & Mercer, November 2020)

Genre: Crime-Detective, Thriller, Mystery

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Book Review

Loving strong female lead characters in my crime fiction, Isabella Maldonado’s The Cipher had been on my wishlist since its release. And, when I found out Jennifer Lopez had signed up to both star and produce this novel’s TV adaptation, it got bumped up the reading pile.

Maldonado has conferred on Nina Guerrera one of the more horrific childhoods you will find amongst fictional series leads. The depiction of her past physical and emotional trauma is raw, graphic, and likely triggering for some readers. This personal background, layered on top of inherent racial bias in US law enforcement, sets the platform for her ‘survivor-underdog’ storyline. And, some great one-liners that will play exceptionally well on screen.

“I’ve given up on hope”, she said quietly, then lifted her chin. “From now on, I fight.” 

The Cipher is also one of the most viscerally detestable unsubs I have come across in fiction. Perhaps this drawing of characters at the extremities of plausibility fostered my need to suspend belief in several instances. Or, the likeable but relatively thinly characterised small ensemble cast, Nina’s investigative colleagues.

All eyes turned to Wade, who opened a leather-bound notebook. Everyone else had some sort of electronic device open on the table.

The Cipher (the novel, not the unsub) and its race against time structure should have made for an intense page-turning read. Maldonado’s writing style is clean and highly accessible, just like you would expect from an author of commercial bestsellers. But her at times transactional prose, never quite cultivated the level of reading intensity I would have expected.

Its unfulfilled potential aside, The Cipher was still an interesting start to a series and sets up a crime-fighting team I may turn to in the future for a non-taxing read.

BOOK RATING: The Story 3.5 / 5 ; The Writing 3 / 5 – Overall 3.25

The Cipher (Nina Guerrera #1) is available from:

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More The Cipher reviews

“ this riveting series launch from Maldonado…the frequent plot twists will keep readers guessing to the end, and Maldonado draws on her 22 years in law enforcement to add realism. Determined to overcome her painful past, the admirable Nina has enough depth to sustain a long-running series.” —Publishers Weekly

“The survivor of a vicious crime confronts her fears in a hunt for a serial killer…forensic analysis, violent action, and a tough heroine who stands up to the last man on earth she wants to see again.” —Kirkus Reviews

The Cipher is a brutal, viscerally raw, no-holds-barred story that takes readers into the heart of darkness.” – Criminal Element

About the Author, Isabella Maldonado

Wall Street Journal bestselling author Isabella Maldonado wore a gun and badge in real life before turning to crime writing. The first Latina to attain the rank of captain in her police department, she retired as the Commander of Special Investigations and Forensics. Selected to attend the prestigious FBI National Academy in Quantico, she uses her extensive law enforcement background to bring a realistic edge to her writing. THE CIPHER, the first book in her bestselling series featuring FBI Special Agent Nina Guerrera, was published in 2020 and will be made into a feature film on Netflix starring Jennifer Lopez. The sequel, A DIFFERENT DAWN, was published in 2021. The third book in the series, THE FALCON, was published in June 2022. Visit her website for more information and connect with her on Twitter, Facebook or Goodreads.