Going underground is a popular frontier for adventure today. Two best selling juvenile novels paint very different landscapes of the world beneath us.
First, Tunnels, "soon to be a major motion picture" according to the back cover, by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams is two and a half novels in one. In Part One The Groundbreaking, Will and his father, Dr. Burrows, share a love of digging and collecting the archaeological remnants they uncover. Dr. Burrows is especially keen on finding old subway tunnels and sewer lines that have been closed off for decades. Will introduces schoolmate Chester to their excavations and soon, he too is avidly digging with Will after school. To make a very long story short, Dr. Burrows disappears. Will figures out that his father had a secret tunnel in the basement of their house which has mysteriously closed up from the inside out! Will and Chester re-dig the tunnel and enter an underground world. Thus begins Part Two The Colony.
Will and Chester are taken by the police to prison. There they are each tortured and interrogated by a race of sinister men known as the "Styx," who are described as "avaricious priests." After several days of this, Will is release to a Mr. Jerome, who claims to be Will's father, but Chester is still kept in dark and solitary confinement. It turns out that Will is a native of this underground world, and his birth mother escaped to the "Topsoil," taking her young son, Seth, with her, but leaving her infant, Caleb, behind. Somehow he was adopted into the Burrows family. Will realizes he really is Seth, and finds his place in the Macauly home with Grandma, Uncle Tam, and Caleb. Caleb takes him to a bizarre type of mandatory religious service, presided over by the Styx.
Apparently, the Styx require daily attendance at an Anglican type service, three times a day. The founder of the underground colony, Martineau, is worshipped as a saint, complete with portrait in the church, called the "Breaking of the Ground." The other item of note in the "church" is a large, iron crucifix. The colonists came below nearly 200 years ago, because of Martineau's belief that the topsoil world was corrupted beyond conversion. In the Colony, anyone who comes from Topsoil is enslaved or banished to the dark unknown abyss of the earth, and anyone who escapes to the Topsoil is hunted down and executed. The Styx keep the colonists below by preaching the following,
"The surface of the earth is beset by creatures in a constant state of war with one another. Millions perish on either side, and there is no limit to the brutality of their malice. Their nations fall and rise, only to fall and rise again. The vast forests have been laid low by them, and the pastures defiled with their poison...Their gluttony is matched only by their appetites for death, affliction, terror, and banishment of every living thing. And, despite their iniquities, they aspire to rise to the firmament..but, mark this, the excessive weight of their very sins will weigh them down."
The Styx enforce the belief that "when the judgment comes...they will be hurled into the abyss and forever lost to the Lord...and on that day...we...will once again return to...build the new Jerusalem."
This disturbed vision of faith and what it does to people is why I have decided that Tunnels is Not Recommended .
Will convinces Caleb to doubt his lifelong religious training and escape with him Topsoil. They succeed with the help of Uncle Tam, but discover that above ground, they will be forever hunted by the Styx. Will realizes that he can't leave Chester to a long, slow death, and that he would also like to find his father, so they return to the colony with a plan to free Chester and take off for the Deeps.
In Part 3 The Eternal City, there are some battle sequences and chases, but Will, Caleb, and Chester hop a train headed for the Deeps in search of Will's father. Depressing, but I can see how it would be fascinating for a twelve year old boy. I have allowed my son to read it, but am pointing out to him the skewed images of faith along the way.
On the other hand, in Gregor Overlander, the first of the Underlander Chronicles by Suzann Collins, Gregor and his toddler sister, Boots fall into a world of giant insects, bats, rats, and ordinary sized people. Like Will in Tunnels, Gregor's father is also missing. Gregor and Boots are not exactly imprisoned, they are kept in a luxurious castle suite, but they are guarded nonetheless. Gregor discerns that the water must come from above and attempts an escape with Boots, but is attacked by giant, vicious rats. The Underlanders rescue him and tell him that he must stay to fulfill the Prophecy of Gray. The Prophecy of Gray tells of an Overlander who will come to save the Underlanders from destruction and to find a long-lost prisoner of the rats.
Making unlikely allies, and discovering treachery in the ranks, Gregor succeeds in fulfilling the prophecy, while always putting Boots' safety and well-being first and foremost. And guess who the long-lost prisoner is? Gregor, Boots and his father return to the Overland and his dear mother. Before they go, Gregor's return to the Underland is predicted, thus setting up the cause for a sequel.
With heroism, family, and love as the central themes of this book, it is Highly Recommended. Even though most of the novel takes place underground, the admirable characters and hopeful plot make Gregor Overlander feel light and airy, unlike the suffocating and grim Tunnels.