The Black Sphinx

On Tuesday June the 19th, 2007, during a bus ride from Oslo to Sandefjord (Torp) airport and subsequent flight to Stansted, I read The Black Sphinx, by Matt Hart (published by Corgi books, an imprint of Random House Childrens' Books; its copyright notice (which – oddly enough – assigns copyright to Andrew Matthews, 2006, despite also saying Matt Hart has asserted the right to be identified as author) page gives the following, which I suppose to be ISBN or similar numbers: 978 0552 55421 3 (from Jaunary 2007), 0 552 55421 9).

I'd bought this on a whim a year and a half earlier, precisely as journey reading, to which purpose it was admirably suited. It is, however, clearly intended as a book for children (I would guess aged eight to twelve); and I am inclined to suppose it would work pretty well for them, too. It's a fairly straight-forward mystery/thriller set in an alternate world – in which London has never been more than an obscure muddy village, Wolveston being the capital of England, and fairly similar to Victorian London; Britain is still ruled by a Lord Protector and the American colonies obtained their independence in 1773 by amicable agreement, after the Boston Tea Party.

The tale concerns the search for a magical artefact, the black sphinx of the title; our protagonist is a young lad who starts out with nothing but manages to find friends with whom to take on the ruthless and psychotic demonist, with friends in high places, against whom he's pitted. Events proceed in a lively enough manner, with enough humour in the presentation to be engaging; I've no doubt that a parent or child minder with any fluency can keep a child or three happily engaged in the story for a good deal longer than the few hours it took me to wolf it down.

Riddle of the sphinx

The story also comes with a puzzle for the reader to solve (indeed, this might be what prompted my whim to buy it); each chapter's margins provide one verse of The Curse of the Black Sphinx, encoded using hieroglyphs. The cipher is (I think) within reach of a bright child's ability to crack, with a bit of persistence; and a look-up table is given at the end of the book which makes it trivial to read off the verses, for those not interested in that challenge. I've written a separate page giving an account of how I went about solving the puzzle (without resorting to the look-up table, but exploiting some features of my computer), mainly as an excuse to illustrate how one goes about breaking a substitution cipher.

The following is a toy to let you try to solve the puzzle yourself: it begins with the curse as I transcribed it (but tidied up), with a control under it which you can use to try out different substitutions.




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