Beneath by Roland Smith
Published by Scholastic on January 27, 2015. Hardcover of 272 pages at $16.99. Also available as an ebook. Intended for ages 10 – 14, grades 5 – 9.
Note: I read an advanced copy, so any aspect of the book may have changed by publication.
The cover: Big, bold red letters state the title at the top, leading to a hole in the concrete surrounded by bricks. A glow is coming from this opening, dangerously inviting readers to peer in. This is exactly the right cover for this book. It’s an excellent creation from artist and designer Phil Falco. Overall grade: A
The premise: From the inside front cover, “Pat O’Toole has always idolized his older brother, Coop. He’s even helped Coop with some of his crazier plans — such as risking his life to help his big brother dig a tunnel underneath their neighborhood in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Coop is…different. He doesn’t talk on the phone, doesn’t use email, and doesn’t have friends. He’s never really cared for anything but the thrill of being underground, and Pat. So it’s no surprise to anyone — even Pat — that after a huge fight with their parents, Coop runs away. Exactly one year later, Pat receives a package containing a digital voice recorder and a cryptic message from his brother. He follows the clues to New York City and soon discovers that Coop has joined the Community, a self-sufficient society living beneath the streets. Now it’s up to Pat to find his brother — and bring him home.” I like quest books, and nothing could be nobler than a younger brother venturing into the unknown to rescue his older brother. I’m in. Overall grade: A
The characters: Middle schooler Pat O’Toole idolizes his older brother Cooper. He’s much more relatable to readers than his older brother, and will do anything to find him. He’s very much out of his comfort zone in this novel as he’s prone to moments of agoraphobia. Readers know that at some point Pat is going to come upon a situation where he’s going to be in a tight place. I liked his focus, because he’s the character that drives this novel forward, though Coop does come to the front twice. The first time is when Pat is listening to one of his brother’s tapes and the point of view switches to him. He suffers from wanderlust completely, and he’s no dummy. He’s very curious, to a flaw, and his voice on those tapes compels Pat to keep looking for him. When Coop did appear in the book I was glad that he didn’t overshadow his little brother. Instead, Coop deferred to him since Pat had been running loose longer than he had. Helping both brothers is Katherine, who prefers to be called Kate. Her introduction is great, and I won’t spoil it, and I loved how her love of Coop made her want to help Pat. She was a great character. The villains of the book are the Pod (People of the Deep) lead by Lod (Leader of the Deep). There’s not much known about this group, only rumors and hearsay, but they are fully revealed before the end. I found the build up to this group to be fantastic, but the payoff poor. It was too much for me. I just couldn’t believe their elaborate setup and how they existed. How they made their money was completely unbelievable. They weren’t a good choice for bad guys. This was incredibly frustrating. The protagonists are great and the antagonists woefully farfetched. Overall grade: C
The settings: Utterly fantastic until the arrival into the Deep. I really like how the lower the characters got the more beaten up their environment became. This is how I would expect the underworld to be. It was described very vividly, especially the underground river. However, it became a James Bond setting for the Deep itself. As with the characters, this had me disappointed. It just did not fit in with the rest of the novel. Overall grade: C
The action: There are some terrific action sequences as Pat goes deeper and encounters different groups of people. The paranoia of the darkness is palpable as he stumbles away to hide or to continue to go deeper. I was pleased with the action in the Deep. I didn’t care for the settings or the villains, but the action based on these is believable. Overall grade: B+
The conclusion: I was not happy with the ending, because there really isn’t one. It ended with a sequel being strongly held out for the readers to want. If this had been promoted as the first in a series, I probably would have felt better about the ending, but as it stands, there’s nothing resolved and more tapes are to come. Overall grade: D
The final line: I couldn’t believe the villains or their setting, and because of that I couldn’t lose myself in this tale. Smith has proven in other books he’s a capable writer, but in this he’s straining believability even for his targeted age group. Overall grade: C