The Tunnels Below by Nadine Wild-Palmer
|The Tunnels Below by Nadine Wild-Palmer|
|Category: Confident Readers|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: File next to Gaiman, although for me the amount of world-building meant not enough time for the right kind of action to make this a classic.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 256||Date: April 2019|
|Publisher: Pushkin Children's Books|
|External links: Author's website|
Meet Cecilia. It's her twelfth birthday, and after a scene that shows her parents to be wacky, witty and wonderful as if fresh from an American sit-com, the whole family is set to go out for a grand day of celebration. Cecilia is toting a large, silvered ball that her younger sister found as a present, but ends up dropping it, and watching it as it rolls right back from her grip into the very Underground carriage they had just left. Mind the gap. Back in the train with it she finds she is alone – and the train promptly hares off to leave her abandoned in pitch darkness at a stop no other train has ever taken her to… It's the outskirts, Cecilia will find, of a strange society of English-speaking humanised animals, and her first acquaintance, a fox-man, will tell her that all talk of a world above, with suns and fields and fresh air, is pooh-poohed as the nonsense gibberish of people who have wandered in darkness too much and forgotten their origins. Can she survive all this wondrous civilisation can throw at her and find her way back to the family she left behind – or will the dark leaders from the resident crow family subject her to their evil reign?
From the outset I had the sense this book was well-geared towards a young, modern reader. Cecilia's surname is like the author's and double-barrelled, to show the fragmented nature of the modern family. She's depicted in artwork as a character of colour, although that never really features in the story. But more importantly, the young reader is allowed to engage with Cecilia's new surroundings, in good ways – something is faced with the same trepidation, we're told, as the walk up to the stage to speak in school assembly. And let's face it – I seem to recall starting a juvenile story myself with the old train-ride-to-nowhere trope, and I wouldn't have been alone in trying it out as a start. Very few could take us to such rich places as in this Gaimanesque fantasia, however.
This is not quite the read I expected to find, though – one where an Orwellian evil parliament of crows ruled over all the other creatures, and left Cecilia a nobody trying to find her way out. For one thing, there is synaesthesia here as a topic, and I was both surprised by this and not completely sure where it fitted in. This world lets you taste music, hence the presence of puns about 'taste in music' and 'sound bites'. (There are other puns present – the quarter of this subterranean world where the focus is on celebrity and entertainment is lit with a lime-coloured glow, so everyone aims to be in the lime light.) One of the many ways Cecilia finds out how weird this existence is, is when all and sundry gather in a stadium to watch and gamble on a race partly powered and partly determined by the colours of the sighs they all exude.
All this, then, left me with some small doubts while reading this, which bear mentioning alongside the fact the pages really did turn themselves, and really were quite gripping in their novelty. I did doubt, as I say, that this was too much world-building. The presence of the crows and how they worked really came about too slowly, and the whole thing of watching Cecilia go round learning new things left her at times with too little to do to further the plot. Her lack of agency did make me wonder if this was just the scene-setter for a whole, larger series.
It does end up as being self-contained, but that doesn't end the story as far as I was concerned. For one thing, the presence and leadership of the crows was never fully explained – they must have come from somewhere and must want something, even if their ringleader's charisma and uniqueness made him stand above all others. And in the end the synaesthesia was left hanging as well. The biggest issue for me was still the lack of things for Cecilia to do other than hare about and react – the story, as inventive as it was, as readable as it was, and as engaging as it was for the right audience, never gave her the chance to show her capabilities. This debut novel has shown the author perfectly capable of at least half of what makes a wondrous book – just having the heroine instigate some action will put her a step closer to greatness.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
The Haven: Book 1 by Simon Lelic also takes this audience underground to show a society us surface dwellers might never suspect.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Tunnels Below by Nadine Wild-Palmer at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The Tunnels Below by Nadine Wild-Palmer at Amazon.com.
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