First of all, I want to say that due to the way "The Dark Ground" was written, it's almost impossible to write a review of it without giving away those major mysterious plot points that are slowly revealed by the author throughout the reading of the text. Therefore, I must be a good little reviewer and warn you right here and now that my review contains many many spoilers about this book. If you want to read this wonderfully mysterious and atmospheric tale with any sense of wonder, stop reading this review once this paragraph ends. I'll sum up the important information right here for your convenience: This is a fun first book in a series. It's fast-paced, full of action, and a bit gory for younger kids. You'll enjoy finding out what happens to its hero and the ending leaves you wanting more. There! Now go away unless you want to be completely clued into some of the deeper innerworkings of this marvelous British import.
It's just your typical airplane ride. One minute Robert's in the bathroom of a plane, looking in the mirror, and seeing a tiny man in the black part of his iris. The next, he's naked and alone in a huge forest with no sense of where he is and no one he knows near him. Using his wits Robert must fend for himself, finding food, makeshift clothing, and a shelter of some sort. As he grows better acquainted with his surroundings, the boy realizes that there are other people living near him and he must do everything he can to get their attention and find out what exactly has happened to him.
In many ways this book is just a slightly more fantastical version of Gary Paulsen's, "Hatchet". The sense of survival against a cruel world (not to mention the gigantic hungry creatures within it) and sense of one man against the universe is prevalent throughout the text. What really pulls the story together though is Cross's ability to convey the horrific and the impossible in a believable way. Robert realizes what's happened to him only after confronting the facts and realizing that, however impossible they may seem, they must be true. You see, Robert has been shrunken. He's tiny. So are the other people he meets. So when he sets off for his old home to recover his old life, the trek is long and arduous. The book's like "The Borrowers" but much darker. What's really amazing about Cross's writing is that she manages to make an essentially silly idea (boy-gets-shrunk) into something frightening and disturbing.
Of course there are some problems. For one thing, Cross is a great writer but she is simply awful at humor. There's really not a single funny line or lighthearted jab anywhere to be found in this tome. Robert's in a serious situation and it remains serious continually. This can be a bit wearying after 200 pages or so. There's also a lot of howling, pain, and people confronting big ideas and not being able to reconcile themselves to them. These characters are constantly shying away from painful thoughts. It gets more than a little repetitive over time. Also, though the other people don't save Robert right off the bat because they want him to prove himself, he never blames them for it. Never even mentions it to them (though he's almost killed several times as a result). Seems odd. Finally, none of the characters ever wear shoes... or seem to want to. Huh?
In any case, this is still a wonderful story that's written well but could have stood a little comic relief and less howls of agony. Definitely a title for older readers who aren't afraid of a little vomit, bloodshed, death, and despair. The feel good book of the year it's not. But it's a well told story and an entrancing one.