The students in Edgewood Middle School’s Grade 8 advanced placement class aren’t feeling all that psyched about their graduation field trip. The kids, from small-town New Mexico, expected a weekend in Albuquerque – but their teacher has chosen a day trip to the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The 5:30 a.m. departure time isn’t helping matters. But once inside the caves, they have to admit it’s pretty cool. “The vaulted cavern ceiling stretched far overhead, covered completely with limestone formations and stalactites that loomed over them like the teeth of some monolithic beast.” Not long into the excursion, an earthquake hits, their teacher disappears, and the students are swept away by an underground river into a remote part of the caves – with no way out.
The premise alone promises that A World Below will be an action-packed middle-grade adventure novel. Yet author Wesley King adds another layer of danger in the form of the cave’s mysterious human inhabitants.
The story is variously told through the eyes of Eric, a student who gets separated from the group in the rushing river; Silvia, the teen who takes charge of the rest of her lost classmates; and King Carlos, the 13-year-old ruler of the underground people, who’s determined to protect his subjects from the threat of these “surface demons.”
The students-in-peril plot keeps the story moving, while historically relevant themes can be found in the depiction of the cave-dwelling community. Carlos’s great-grandfather was named first king after leading a group of Hispanic, nature-worshipping New Mexican residents underground 118 years ago. But instead of finding peace, the new kingdom became divided. A small portion of the people were exiled to an inhospitable part of the caves and tensions between the factions have been passed down through the generations.
The book does a great job contrasting Erics’s and Silvia’s issues – insecurity and anxiety, respectively – with Carlos’s worries as an untested teenaged ruler, torn between the ways of his recently deceased father and the nagging feeling that he needs to drag his people into a more enlightened age.
When Carlos’s confidence flags, his nine-year-old sister, Eva – who’s outspoken, sarcastic, and woefully underemployed, both by Carlos and in the book – is there to buck him up.
How Eric, Silvia, and co. will make it out alive keeps the reader engaged. But Carlos and Eva offer the novel’s most affecting passages. They deserve a book unto themselves – or at least a bigger role in the sequel the author hints at in the last page of this one.