Two brothers discover a subterranean complex full of puzzles, riddles—and maybe their destiny—in Ellis’ debut middle-grade novel.
It’s June, and 12-year-old Peter Wilson and his 10-year-old brother, Dave, are looking forward to another summer in a forest that borders their backyard. They can’t resist exploring an unusually deep hole and are awed to find themselves in a huge underground room with candle-lined walls and an oversized table and chairs. That night, Peter dreams of the room: a man is sitting at the table, 7 feet tall and “radiating…gentleness and kindness.” The giant speaks a single sentence before Peter wakes up: “The secret is important, but your promise is everything.” Guided by dreams and their own ingenuity, the boys work together to explore the caverns, learning that different combinations of lit and unlit candles open doors to different rooms. Eventually, the man from their dreams reveals himself as Eli, “part of a long line of guardians of the earth” charged by God to “reestablish forest areas, cure plant diseases, and correct other imbalances.” Eli and his fellow caretakers invite the boys to become part of their brotherhood, praising them for being “loving, trustworthy, responsible, and capable of carrying out special tasks.” But there’s a catch: they can never tell anyone. The book’s themes of friendship, responsibility, and curiosity are worthwhile, and the boys’ old-fashioned, outdoorsy childhood is anachronistic (the boys use a two-way radio to keep in touch with their parents rather than a cellphone) but pleasantly nostalgic. Occasional illustrations by Winburn (The Five Colors of Our Nature Walk, 2016, etc.) are a nice touch. But the novel’s biggest weakness is simply that the boys don’t meet Eli in the flesh until late in the book. Far too much of the preceding narrative is taken up by descriptions of cautious rock climbing and solving the candle combinations—both more interesting to do than read about. Besides the boys’ mother, who has no name, only two female characters appear, in single scenes completely unnecessary to the narrative; the ancient, holy guardians are all men.
An underground adventure that takes too long to get going.