Guardian of the Underworld

Guardian of the Underworld

It feels like it’s been a while since I took a look at some high fantasy so I think I should probably do something to change that. Guardian of the Underworld was first published in 2014 and is the debut novel of Rachel Tetley. It tells the story of a young boy and girl as they set out on a quest in a parallel world. The novel forms the first part of a planned series but at the time of writing no future instalments have been announced.

Eleven year old Jake Summers leads a happy and uncomplicated life until his world is rocked by the sudden death of his grandfather. He soon comes into the possession of the key to a room in his Grandpa’s home – the one room that he was told never to enter – and sets out to find out what secrets lie within.

Inside the room, he discovers shelves full of strange books and objects, including some that are undeniably magical. Jake quickly realises that all of the fairy stories his Grandpa always told were true. He was the High Keeper – the highest ranked guardian in charge of maintaining the balance between the human world and the underworld – and he had been training Jake to be his successor.

Unfortunately, Jake’s Grandpa’s death had been sudden and he had not had time to complete his initiation and Jake isn’t so sure that he wants to be a guardian anyway. Unfortunately, he is soon not left with a choice. Cerberus – his Grandpa’s killer – has decided to take the Five Trials needed to become the new High Keeper. He has also kidnapped the little sister of his friend Arianna in order to lure Jake to the underworld.

Jake knows that if Cerberus becomes the new High Keeper, the world is doomed. With help from Arianna and a strange creature called Noggin, he sets off to take the Five Trials for himself. But the way is dangerous and he is at a disadvantage to Cerberus, who has been training for years. Jake must muster all his strength and cunning to pass because if he fails, all of them will be trapped in the underworld forever.

Guardian of the Underworld is clearly targeted towards a middle grade reader but I think that it probably would have some appeal towards a young teen. The story is very reminiscent of The Chronicles of Narnia in tone, especially as the underworld is populated by many talking animals and magical creatures. The world set up is only briefly eluded to but seems well thought out and contained some very unique ideas. While we don’t see much of the underworld during this story as the focus is on Jake’s trials, I am really interested to learn more about it in future instalments.

On top of typical fantasy creatures such as dragons and wights (or sown men as they are known in this novel), there are also many of the author’s own creations. My favourite was the Mohana and the army of unfortunates under her control as these were incredibly creepy additions to the story. Noggin is also very memorable as a mascot character and I think that many young readers would find him irresistible.

While the story is fast paced and exciting, I did find that the prose was a little confused in places and probably should have received some tighter editing. I don’t tend to comment on editing in independent novels unless I find it particularly offensive but this book contained several basic spelling errors (such as the confusion between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’) and some passages that just made little sense. In one scene, Jake and Arianna head out in search of Maisy. They knock on a neighbour’s door and when she answers, they make an excuse about why Maisy is not with them and just leave again. I kind of assumed they were knocking on the neighbour’s door to ask whether or not she had seen Maisy and so this passage really threw me. On rereading it several times, I was still not entirely sure why they knocked on that door in the first place.

I also felt that the novel could have been paced a bit slower as Jake makes his way through the five trials very quickly over the last third of the story. While the trials make for exhilarating reading, they just occurred too closely together and so I did not feel that I had much of a chance to appreciate them. While a younger reader would probably be less critical than I, I also felt that the use of a very sudden (and previously unmentioned) deus ex machina to save a character’s life was very unsatisfying. This is a personal gripe but I’m not wild about characters being brought back from the dead. For me, if a character dies they should stay dead. It always seems exploitative to have them suddenly drawn back from the brink (and then be right as rain afterwards). The story also ended very abruptly with a sudden cliff-hanger which, as you may be aware, is another thing that I don’t really like to see in a novel. It always seems like a cheap way to get readers to buy your next book and I much prefer for a story to wrap itself up neatly.

Characters in the novel were generally very good. I felt as though I really got to know both Jake and Arianna during the novel and appreciated both of them for the different attitudes and skills that they brought to the table. Arianna was smart and quick to except the workings of the underworld, making her invaluable as she was capable of helping Jake to solve some of the mental puzzles along the way.

However, the story was really about Jake’s journey and it’s his growth that really colours the plot. Although Jake begins the story as a reluctant (and somewhat unwilling) hero, he really comes into his own during his trials. He quickly learns to put aside his self-doubt and draw upon courage that he did not know that he possessed in order to protect his friends. My only disappointment with his handling of the trials is his over-reliance on gadgets. Most of the obstacles he encounters are eventually overcome by using the magical devices that previously belonged to his Grandpa – a torch that translates ancient text, a lasso that can restrain anything, an invisibility crystal and others. It would have been nice to see Jake find a way to overcome more of them using his own initiative rather than by these means.

The only character I did not think was very well written was Cerberus as his motivation was barely explained. We see early in the novel that he had a poor childhood but that did not seem to be enough to explain why he wants to have the power to destroy all life on earth. His plot is also cut short in the novel as it is essentially waved aside towards the end of the trials without any kind of resolution or climax. It was really disappointing as it left him feeling as a McGuffin to lead Jake to the High Council, rather than a true villain for the story.

So, all in all, Guardian of the Underworld is a bit of mixed bag. Although it presents a very lovely fantasy world and two likable protagonists, it also suffers from some pacing and editing issues and has a villain who is a little uninspired. However, it is a short and enjoyable read for a younger reader and the cliff-hanger left me curious as to what Jake’s next adventure would be.

Guardian of the Underworld can be purchased as an eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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  1. Trackback: Book of Light | Arkham Reviews

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