Barry Cunningham is best known for being the publisher who brought Harry Potter to the world by signing then unknown writer J.K. Rowling after she had been rejected by numerous other publishers.
Since then, I'm sure he's been on the lookout for the "next big thing". Apparently the wait is over. In what's touted to be the "next Harry Potter", Mr. Cunningham has signed another unknown author, or rather pair of authors, Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams. Gordon and Williams had previously self-published their book as "The Highfield Mole". After what I'm sure was exhaustive marketing analysis, the book's title has been changed to "Tunnels".
It's an unfair comparison to call a new book the "next Harry Potter". It's akin to saying a company is the "next Microsoft" or an up-and-coming band is the "next Beatles". There is no way any book will live up to the hype. And this book should not be compared to Harry Potter. It is its own animal. And it's pretty good.
"Tunnels" is interesting and entertaining - eventually. I won't recap the plot here because you can read the official description above. The problem is that it takes 170 pages before anything happens. I almost gave up on it. None of the characters introduced in the first third of the book are compelling. They just don't come to life.
Also, the writing in the first part of the book isn't that great. It's too wordy and over-laden with adjectives. It also suffers from "adverb disease" ("Will said quietly", "Rebecca said triumphantly", "Chester said awkwardly"). It's a chore to read.
Then Will and Chester go underground. The writing improves in the second half of the book as things begin to happen and some interesting characters emerge.
"Tunnels" is good, but you're left hanging at the end, waiting for Book 2, which is supposed to be published in 2008.
I predict that "Tunnels" will find its audience, but it will not be a huge success.
The universal appeal of Harry Potter was its magical world, co-existing with the regular world, but hidden from us Muggles. The magical world was whimsical, mysterious and fun. Readers escaped into that world and, when they were finished reading, couldn't wait to visit again and again and again.
"Tunnels" also has a hidden world, but there's nothing magical about it. It is mysterious, but it is also brutal and violent. People are tortured and killed. Vicious dogs attack with intent to kill. Even the regular world depicted in "Tunnels" is bleak. Here is a sample description of a neighborhood near Will's house:
"It was also the favoured spot for kids on their track bikes and, increasingly, stolen mopeds, the latter being run into the ground and then torched, their carbon-black skeletons littering the far edges of the Pits, where weeds threaded up through their wheels and around their rusting engine blocks. Less frequently, it was also the scene for sinister adolescent amusements such as bird- or frog-hunting; all too often, the creatures were slowly tortured to death and their sorry little carcasses impaled on sticks in sadistic youthful glee."
One of the main characters, Chester, whiles "away the time...by swatting bluebottles and wasps with an old badminton racket, easy targets as they grew lazy in the noonday heat." Later, he flicks "the mutilated remains of a large fly off the frayed strings of his racket."
Yuck again. Does this sound like someone you'd want your kids to hang out with?
Regarding the physical book, I have one major complaint about the softcover edition. I have an original copy of "The Highfield Mole" that includes many illustrations by Brian Williams. The softcover edition of "Tunnels" contains almost none of these illustrations. What a shame.
Finally, I couldn't help feeling a sense of déjà vu while reading "Tunnels". It evoked memories of Jeanne DuPrau's "The City of Ember".
I recommend "Tunnels", but be aware of what you're getting yourself into - bleakness, darkness, dirt, grime and violence - with the promise of a rip-roaring adventure story.