Tunnels and Deeper, by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams

Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams's Tunnels series has a great back story. Their first book (originally titled The Highfield Mole) was allegedly inspired by a real—and very strange—place: the Williamson Tunnels, a mysterious labyrinth of tunnels built in Liverpool by an eccentric tobacco merchant in the early 19th century. Gordon and Williams self-published their book in 2005, but soon after it was discovered by Barry Cunningham, the literary agent who signed J.K. Rowling. (Copies of the original book are rare, and AbeBooksUK ranked it as the 2nd "most collectable" book of 2007.) Their book was republished as Tunnels in 2007, followed by Deeper and the just-released novel Freefall. The fourth book in the series, Closer, will be coming out in the U.K. this spring and a movie adaptation is planned for later this year.

Unfortunately, the background story for this series is better than its execution. I was willing to set aside the authors' bizarre stabs at literary styling (although I shuddered over phrases like “tawdry eggbeaters”) and the glacial pace of their plot, but I could not accept the near-total lack of sympathetic characters. We've complained in the past about implausibly noble, self-sacrificing protagonists, but very little time spent with the main character of the Tunnels series left us pining for Gregor, the saintly hero of Suzanne Collins's Underland Chronicles. Clearly, we had no idea how good we had it.

[WARNING: Significant spoilers ahead, people! DO NOT READ the following if you wish to remain in the dark.]

Tunnels introduces us to 14-year-old Will Burrows, an English teenager living with his bossy younger sister, television-obsessed mother, and perpetually abstracted museum curator father. Will and his dad are fascinated by archeology and spend every available minute on local digs, hoping to make the kind of major discovery that will guarantee them a place in history. But when Will's dad disappears and strange men in Edwardian garb start lurking around his school, Will realizes that his most recent find—a seemingly abandoned tunnel that leads to a subterranean city—is more mystery than he can handle.

As Deeper opens, Will, his friend Chester, and his newly-discovered little brother Cal are wandering in the tunnels outside the underground development known as "The Colony". They're hoping to find Will's father and make their way back to civilization, but first they need to escape the long arm of the Styx, the sinister group that controls the Colony and is led by the girl Will had always believed to be his younger sister.

The coolest things about these books are their dense, complex plots—plots that neither talk down to young readers nor sacrifice convoluted twists and turns in favor of the easygoing, oh-so-readable charm of books like the The 39 Clues series. Unfortunately, all the imagination and complexity in the world isn't enough to make up for totally unappealing characters, and that's what we've got here. Will's parents are ghastly: utterly selfish, wholly absorbed in their own pursuits, and perfectly willing to delegate 100% of the household management, from cooking to cleaning to paying the bills, to their twelve-year-old daughter Rebecca. Will at least has the excuse of being a child, but he's nearly as bad: he idolizes his father, ignores his mother, and is A-OK with his little sister doing the family's chores. (He makes no attempt to help or thank her, and even has the gall to wonder why she failed to wake him up for school at one point.) I have no idea what the authors wanted us to feel when we discovered that Rebecca is secretly Pure Evil, but the first thing that crossed my mind was: Hey, if I'd been forced to devote ten years of my life to taking care of those losers, I'd be a supervillain, too.

I spent most of the first two books in this series waiting for someone to change for the better, but it never happened. Apart from feeling guilty over dragging his buddy Chester into his wild adventure, Will never questions his own behavior. His mother—now living in a sanatorium—is as repulsive as ever. His father continues to explore the tunnels, blissfully unconcerned about his family living on the surface. (Sure, he was their sole breadwinner and his wife is totally crazy, but those kind of concerns are for the little people, you know? He is a man of science.) Admittedly, Chester hasn't irritated me yet, but I'm beginning to suspect that's because he hasn't had very many lines. My favorite character* continues to be Rebecca, who—much to my delight!—turns out to be evil twins... thereby bringing the total number of interesting characters in this series up to two.

*Human character, anyway. I also like the cat.

Check back tomorrow for our review of Freefall, the third book in this series.
Posted by: Julianka


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