In Etzkorn’s (Sierra Quest, 2005) YA novel, a teenager discovers the entrance to a secret cavern near his home, which leads him to a dark, dangerous subterranean world inhabited by hostile, overgrown life-forms.
Gunther Cowley, an avid 15-year-old spelunker, has always dreamed of discovering his very own cavern behind his home near New Calar, New York. When his wish unexpectedly comes true, he enlists his younger sister, June, to journey with him into the cave. As they do so, their equipment suddenly fails them, and they must navigate the labyrinth of underground caverns unaided. In the dark depths, they encounter a group of Gunther’s classmates—kids who had mysteriously vanished from New Calar earlier that summer. It turns out that a group of teddy bear–like creatures called “tardigrades” have been keeping the children captive in order to perform mysterious experiments on them. Gunther must draw on his knowledge of caving to help free his friends from the tyrannical Tardies and protect them from a legion of overgrown insects. Meanwhile, Gunther’s mother, Dicey, calls on several quirky locals to help her track down June and Gunther. Etzkorn adds an engaging educational component to the story by including a glossary that introduces caving terms, such as “carabiner” and “speleothem.” The seemingly fantastical tardigrades are based on real-life microscopic organisms, so the story may also serve as a kind of biology refresher. However, aside from a few compelling moments, the novel often drags, hindered by obscure or outmoded references that are unlikely to resonate with younger readers. At one point, for example, the narrator compares teenage Gunther to the late dancer Rudolf Nureyev and at another, one of the Tardies is said to speak like “Jackie Vernon giving voice to Frosty the Snowman.” The parts from Dicey’s perspective, in particular, have a bizarre, almost mystical tone that feels out of step with the rest of the story. The book’s strongest section is its action-packed climax, but these final scenes don’t make up for serious weaknesses in style and characterization.
An uneven YA effort that struggles to deliver on its creative premise.