January 10, 2008


Tunnels. By Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams. Chicken House/Scholastic. $17.99.

Medusa Jones. By Ross Collins. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

      A grand underground adventure in the manner of The Underland Chronicles – but written even more stylishly and packed with more genuine terror – Tunnels is a real thrill ride of a book despite the fact that, at the end, it cheats readers by refusing to button things up (thus guaranteeing a sequel). This is the first novel by two British friends – Roderick Gordon is a former investment banker, Brian Williams an installation artist – and it is packed with drama, a twist-and-turn-filled plot, and a genuine sense of menace. It is the story of 14-year-old Will Burrows and his best friend, Chester, who investigate the mysterious disappearance of Will’s father – who has vanished shortly after discovering a mysterious abandoned tunnel underneath London. The plot setup in the first part of the book, “Breaking Ground,” leads to a harrowing second part, “The Colony,” in which Will discovers an entire civilization beneath London’s streets (which the underground dwellers call “Topsoil”), and learns some unexpected and deeply unsettling things about himself and his family. Will and Chester also encounter the Styx, a malevolent and genuinely scary group dominating the belowground world through fear. The book’s third part, “The Eternal City,” solves some important mysteries and returns Will and Chester to their familiar aboveground world – but it leaves the fate of several important characters, including Will’s father, unresolved, and then the Epilogue directly sets up a second book. Although the “quest” theme of Tunnels is a familiar one, Gordon and Williams set themselves above many other authors who have created adventure tales through the pace of their writing and their unusual style: “There were odd snatches of music, as if scales were being played on a strangled zither.” They also set up scary scenes very well: “Will felt increasingly uneasy, as if something unwholesome and threatening was radiating from between the ancient trees.” Furthermore, Will is a well-above-average young hero, refusing to be pulled blithely about and recovering from a variety of surprising (even shocking) revelations by becoming stronger and more mature. The fact that this is the authors’ first book makes their accomplishment all the more impressive.

      Medusa Jones is a first novel, too, but Ross Collins already has plenty of picture-book credits as both author and illustrator. And the pictures are part of the fun in this highly amusing short novel – but only part. The book takes elements of Greek mythology and turns them inside-out, placing them in a family-and-school setting in which the snake-haired young heroine is nothing at all like her grandmother, who “is insane and lives in a cave” and used to have a habit of turning postmen to stone. True, young Medusa, being a Gorgon, can turn people to stone, but her parents forbid it (“it’s not the polite thing to do, dear”) and insist she find another way to handle the constant teasing she receives from the Champions. They are three really irritating, really good-looking kids – Perseus, Theseus and Cassandra – and they constantly mock Medusa for her snaky head, her choice of best friend (Chiron, a centaur), and even her puppy (the adorable Cerberus, all three of whose heads are cute as can be). Eventually, Medusa and Chiron and their friend Mino (yup, a young version of the bull-headed Minotaur) get stuck on a camping trip with the Champions, and when things go very wrong, it is the misfits who save the day. But if you expect that to lead to a sweetness-and-light, let’s-all-be-friends-now ending, you’ll be disappointed – and will miss out on Collins’ sly humor. And that would be a shame, because Medusa Jones is not to be missed. Or hissed.

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