Tunnels by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, 480 pp RL MIDDLE GRADE
This was one of those books that I avoided when it first came out in January of 2008 because of the hype that surrounded it. It was tagged, as are most non-reality based kid's books published recently, as the next Harry Potter. I have become so weary of the constant presence of dragons and magic in books since Harry Potter and Eragon hit the shelves that I often don't even read the jacket flaps of most of the fantasy that is published these days. My mistake! For starters, Tunnels by British authors Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams does not have dragons, wizards or magic (at least not in the first book in the series...) and it is not fantasy! It is solidly science fiction, a brilliant mix of Jules Verne, Charles Dickens and a little Mark Twain all rolled into one fantastic, innovative, utterly creative plot that is so rich and detailed that I was on the edge of my seat for most of the book. I was also on the edge of my seat because I am a touch claustrophobic (I had to close my eyes and chant a mantra to make it through a twenty minute tour of the catacombs in Chiusi, Italy this summer) and the vivid descriptions in this book of the underground scenes left me short of breath and feeling like the weight of the earth was pressing on me.Tunnels, which has eerie interior illustrations by co-author Brian Williams, is a little slow going at first, but as the story gathers steam and explanations for the oddities are gradually revealed, the pace and tension build quickly. At fourteen, the aptly named Will Burrows is a pale skinned, fair haired boy living what seems to be the typical suburban life of a teenagers who is part of a dysfunctional family. His mother spends all day watching television, while at the same time recording the shows she is missing to watch late into the night. Will's younger sister, Rebecca, is his seeming opposite with her dark hair and adult ways. She is the one who keeps the family fed and organized, telling her father when the bills need paying, cleaning the house and keeping up with her school work. Will's father is a somewhat defeated archaeologist forced to take a job as a museum curator in Highfield, a part of London that was first settled during Roman times. When he is not "busy" working in the museum, rationing out his stash of chocolate and humoring the elderly townspeople who keep bringing him rotting and rusty finds from their cellars that they are sure the museum will want to display, he is active with excavations of his own. With Will in tow, the two spend their weekends at digs, tunneling so far underground they find a deserted subway station. This is a passion for both of them, Dr Burrows wanting to discover the artifact that will catapult him out of obscurity, Will enjoying the act of digging above all else, his beloved shovel which receives a better cleaning than he gives himself.
Unaware of the fact that they each have a secret site that they are digging individually, Will and Dr Burrows begin to make some startling discoveries that they keep secret. Will has enlisted Chester, a physically different outsider like himself, to help him with his dig near the city dump. There they discover a mystifying octagonal room, twenty feet high and made of bricks. Each brick has a person's named carved into it in Gothic script. At the same time, Dr Burrows makes a series of fascinating discoveries that lead him to believe there is a vast network of tunnels running underneath the city, tunnels that might have something to do with the strangely dressed, sunglasses wearing, musty smelling men he begins to notice around town. What Gordon and Williams have dreamt up is both magnificent and menacing to explain these mysteries. If you like a good adventure story with a main character who has only his wits, his loyalty to his friend and his bravery to defend himself with, this is the book for you. My only minor complaint is lack of female, let alone positive, characters in the book. Perhaps things will change in the second book, Deeper, but only Granny Macauley and her adult daughter, the mysterious Sarah, who I hope makes an appearance in the next book, stand out positive, but largely absent women in this story.
So, if you want to know about this amazing plot and don't mind me laying out all the spectacular details, READ ON! If you think you might read this book, really, don't read this. There are a few great twists and they are well worth the wait to be surprised by. Even if no one reads on, this book was so great I just have to write about it, sort of like when you see a really great movie and are compelled to tell your spouse, partner, best friend or nearest warm body the plot from beginning to end... (Incidentally, this book is being made into a movie)
What Will, and Chester, discover is an underground city, "The Colony," that was built over one hundred years ago by Sir Gabriel Martineau and is inhabited by pale skinned, fair haired people who, the majority of them, have never seen the sun or the "Topsoiler" humans who live above them. This city is run by the Styx Division, an ancient law enforcement team of people, all of whom have black hair and wear special military-like clothing. They are in charge of running the city and enforcing the laws that keep the society functioning. They have instituted a religion that teaches the people to hate the topsoilers and see them as the ruiners of the earth. When topsoilers occasionally stumble onto their secret civilization, they either sentence them to slavery or send them into the Deeps. There are tunnels and settlements that go even deeper than those where the Colony has been established. And, there are secrets there that will be revealed as the series progresses. A few weeks ahead of Will in his discovery of the Colony, Dr Burrows has already been sentenced to life in the Deeps and taken the mining train down the long track that leads to it. Will and Chester blunder into the city and immediately are taken into custody, having no idea how violently the citizens of the Colony hate all topsoilers. Will and Chester are treated horribly and eventually separated when it is discovered that Will is the missing child of Mr Jerome, an upper class citizen of the colony who's wife Sara made a daring escape with her two sons years earlier. She only made it out with her older son, Seth, whom she apparently had to abandon once above ground. Unbeknownst to him, Will is the adopted son of Dr Burrows and the birth son of the Jeromes, the missing Seth. When he is taken to his family home he meets his younger brother Cal, his Uncle Tam and his Grandmother Macauley, who shows him a hidden picture of his mother. He also meets Cal's cat, Bartleby. The best visual I could muster of this creature from the descriptions is that of a hairless, pink Great Dane who's purr sounds like an engine running. Definitely one of the most realistic, creepy creatures invented in a kid's book of late.
While Chester remains in prison, Will is put to work along with other kids his age digging. He finds he is actually enjoys having a shovel in his hands again, but his day of work also confirms in him the knowledge that he will rescue Chester from jail and escape the Colony, even though it is his birthplace. In a great scene that evokes the slums of an industrial era London, Cal and Will visit Uncle Tam and his friends at his local pub in the Rookery, the place where the colonists who are too sick, old or lazy to work, live. Instigated by a Styx who has been after Tam since he and Sara were rebellious teens, letting a barrel of frogs loose in the church right before a Styx sermon, insults are flung at topsoiler Will and Tam is drawn into a fight with a local bully. Tam wins handily but the happy hour is over. When Will and Tam meet again it is to plan his and Chester's escape.
While Will manages to get Chester out of jail, he is forced to leave him behind when they are caught at the last moment by the Styx, lead by Will's sister, Rebecca. Will is astounded to learn that the Styx, who have their people all over the world, above and below ground, placed her in the Burrows' family when she was an infant so that she could monitor Will as well as watch for the return of his mother. Now it seems she is really the daughter of Crawface, the Styx who has been after Tam for years. Unwillingly, Will is forced to bring Cal and Bartleby with him as he escapes to the surface using a map and supplies Tam has given him. They find themselves on the banks of the Thames near the Tate Modern as they emerge from their ordeal, which includes passing through the Eternal City, an amazing, enormous, ancient but festering place that has an eerie green glow to is and that I hope is part of the next book. Sick from the air in the Eternal City because he gave his mask to Cal, Will is feverish and almost delirious when they finally make to his aunt's home.
The boys recover there, telling Will's aunt nothing, saying that Cal is a cousin on his father's side. Although Auntie Jean is not much more functional than her sister, Will's topsoiler mom, she takes a liking to Bartleby and knits him a sweater and pants set to keep him warm above ground. Will knows that he must return to rescue Chester and find Dr Burrows, whom he still calls his father and feels a strong connection to. Using his auntie's food money, Will restocks his backpack and he and Cal begin the journey back to the Colony. This time the Styx are waiting for them when they reach the Eternal City. Attacked by one of their giant bloodhounds, Will thinks he is done for, but Bartleby rushes in and saves him. He and Cal run off, pursued by the Styx and desperately worried about the fate of Bartleby who is left behind. When they think they are done for, Uncle Tam and his friend Imago appear to save them. However, they fall into a trap set by the Styx and Tam is forced to fight the double scythe wielding Crawface to the death. Tam wins but sacrifices himself so that Imago and the boys can get away to a hiding place. Once there, they spend a day resting and tending to their wounds. Imago tells the boys that they are all on the run now and can never return to the Colony. If they go topside again, the Styx will hunt for them the rest of their lives. Imago shares with the boys a suspicion of Tam's. He believed that Rebecca was Crawface's daughter and now that he's dead she will want revenge. They decide to part ways, Imago vowing to Will that he will find a way to rescue Chester. Imago gives Will a wad of papers that was discovered in the Rookery. The papers turn out to be Dr Burrows' journal that he had been keeping since he went underground. Will is hopeful when he reads the pages, even if they don't reveal much information. A metal grate in the center of their hideout is opened and a set of tracks is revealed underneath. Imago tells the boys that a mine train to the deeps will be passing by soon and this is their best chance of escape and finding Dr Burrows. The boys agree to drop through the hole as it passes underneath them and happily find they have landed in cars full of supplies being sent to the miners, such as fresh fruit and light orbs. They also discover Chester, who is on his way to his exile in the deeps. Their situation begins to seem not quite so bleak to Will, as he and Chester sit amidst a pile of watermelons and pears, laughing with relief that they have found each other again.
Seems like a great place to end the first book, but there's more!!! We are treated to a bonus scene in which we see Rebecca exact her revenge upon Imago, who has gone topside...
I can't wait to dig into (pun intended!!) the sequel, Deeper!