by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams
Published in the US by Chicken House Scholastic, 2008

In the flyleaf of the book, the authors warn young readers that "The authors, the publisher, and Will Burrows wish it to be made clear that digging underground tunnels is a specialized business, can be very dangerous, and should NOT be attempted by you in your backyard or anyplace else where there's dirt."

As if that would have stopped me were I 11 years old! Heck, it might not even stop me now!

And while I'm sure the warning is more than somewhat serious, Will Burrows is the name of the main character in this delightful fantasy for middle-aged children - "Soon to be a major motion picture" and soon to be followed by the next book in the series.

Touted as "the next Harry Potter," probably because it was originally published in the UK, the book is anything but another tepid rehash of wizard orphan meets dastardly nemesis armed with only a wand.

Tunnels is far too original for that.

Yes, the main character is "special." (He's an albino, for one!) Yes, he is a misfit in the day-to-day world of London, 2007. And yes, he is an orphan (of sorts). But from there on in, Tunnels, er, delves into your imagination on its own merits.

Will Burrows (no, the authors are not nearly as gifted with naming, literary or mythological references, or humor as J. K. Rowling) is a 14-year-old school boy who likes to spend his spare time digging archeological tunnels in out of the way spots throughout London. Working with his dad, a peculiar and unsuccessful misfit himself, the two have dug (mostly thanks to Will's youthful vigor) extensive passages into subterranean London, looking for bits and pieces of undiscovered history.

As the book opens, father and son have just discovered a buried, and intact, train station. At the same time, we get our first hint that something may be "wrong" with Will's father as he makes Will promise not to breathe a word of the news - least of all to the historical museum for which Dr. Burrows works. There is something decidedly unethical about this - and Will knows it.

Not long after this, Dr. Burrows is given an artifact to examine. It's a strange globe that glows from within, lighting the surrounding area. Oddly, the globe glows more strongly the darker it gets, and it darkens as its surroundings become light. It's like nothing that has ever been seen before.

Meanwhile, Will has brought a friend into one of the Burrows's digs - Chester Rawls. Big, strong, and plagued with eczema, Chester is also an outcast at school. He and Will gravitate toward one another out of loneliness, and find a genuine friendship along the way.

Besides Chester, the only other person who knows about Will and Dr. Burrows' digs is Rebecca, Will's hyper-organized, preternaturally mature younger sister. Will's mother, it seems, is slightly crazy, spending all her time holed up with the TV, emerging occasionally to eat, and mutter distractedly at her family. The burden of caring for the family has fallen on Rebecca's capable shoulders. What is odd in all this is not that she should assume the responsibility - but that she should have so little resentment or angst about it. Another hint - something is definitely not right with the Burrows!

So far, the stage has been admirably set. The characters are logged in, the tensions are created, the hints at what is to come are niggling at the back of the reader's mind. And then the big change up - Dr. Burrows disappears!

But Will and Chester are soon on his trail, and it will come as no surprise that the trail leads right into a secret tunnel Dr. Burrows has been digging in the cellar with nary a word to Will. Shaken, Will nevertheless resolves to follow Dr. Burrows down, and ever the faithful sidekick, Chester opts to go as well.

The rest of the book traces the adventures of Will and Chester as they leave London "topsoil" and discover the underground world of The Colony, a whole world of people, places, and things that dropped out of sight in Victorian times, and then evolved along another path, complete with mythology, religion, social order, and strange foods.

What's good is, Will's connection with this hidden world is greater than he could ever imagine. What's bad is, all the people of The Colony are not so nice - and our friends are in mortal peril.

Darker, less imaginative, and more potentially frightening than the Harry Potter series, Tunnels isn't likely to spark spinoff lexicons, analyses and websites - but it will intrigue the 7-13 crowd, and will definitely make both a readable series, and a potentially delightful movie.

The writers are not as facile as Rowling, and seem to be speeding ahead so fast they can't let situations evolve naturally (as in the friendship between Will and Chester - it should have grown as did Harry and Ron's), but simply describe them and dash on ahead. Oddly, though, many of the not-so-favorable Amazon reviews complained that the book moved too slowly!

Still, what young reader can resist a story that pulls us down into a dark, dangerous world-beneath-our-world? I've already got the next book in the series on order from Amazon!


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