On My Shelves: Tom Derringer in the Tunnels of Terror

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Lawrence Watt-Evans has been one of my favorite authors for years, and I've liked many of his books. I've previously reviewed his first entry in the Tom Derringer series; it's good to finally see the next of Tom's adventures.

 

The Tom Derringer series takes place in a world superficially like our own in the late 1800s – but one in which "Adventurers" of the pulp sort are a real thing, where there are mysterious cities of gold, ancient cursed temples, hidden worlds of unknown races of men, and so on. Tom himself is the son of a famous Adventurer, who decided to take up the same profession. Still a teenager, Tom is nonetheless well trained, highly educated, and despite a large helping of naïveté, is competent and usually level-headed.

Fresh from his adventures in Tom Derringer and the Aluminum Airship, where he and his unexpected companion Betsy Vanderhart managed to thwart the plans of Hezekiah McKee to use the eponymous airship to conquer Mexico and, perhaps, the world, Tom finds himself with a strange, lingering question: why did McKee think that Tom had been sent by a man named Gabriel Trask?

Research in the archives of Adventurer's lore reveals that Trask is barely mentioned, and then in context as the possible spymaster for Emperor Norton. This makes no sense at all, since "Emperor Norton" was, as far as Tom or anyone else knows, merely a gentle madman who claimed rulership over California and the United States, and whose reign was tolerated with amusement by those who knew him. Such a man – who died in poverty – couldn't have had a spymaster. What use would Norton have had for such a person, and how could he have paid anyone?

 

This doesn't answer the question as to why someone as dangerous and formidable as McKee would have thought Trask capable of sending anyone after him. While Tom contemplates whether he should pursue the mystery farther, and if so, how, a new complication arrives: Betsy Vanderhart.

This is doubly a surprise – first, because Betsy had not responded to many letters Tom sent her following his return, and secondly because it is of course utterly unheard-of for a young lady to call on a young man's house without warning!

Betsy has a problem. After recounting her adventures to her family, her mother was horrified to discover that Betsy had been the one to send "Reverend" McKee to meet his maker, and has determined to keep Betsy at home until she "repents". Betsy has no desire to be kept penned up, and this is only reinforced by the discovery that her mother has been keeping Tom's letters from reaching her.

Still, she can hardly stay at Tom's house (no matter how much room there may be) without causing utter scandal, and similar rumors would attach to her taking up rooms nearby without parent or chaperone.

Tom's mother – wife of an Adventurer, and an Adventurer herself – points out that there is one possible solution: if Tom is out on an Adventure, she can accompany him without nearly so much potential for scandal, as she would then be an Adventurer herself…

 

I really adore these books. Tom's calm, matter-of-fact narration is a marvelous distillation of the voice common to many stories of the period, with just enough modernization to help it flow more smoothly. Tom's slowly learning the practical side of Adventuring, and doing so by making mistakes that he then has to address. Nonetheless, he is an amazingly competent and level-headed young man under most circumstances, which shows why he is suited for this sort of lifestyle.

Betsy claims to not want to be an Adventurer, but she makes an excellent one in her own right. In fact, it often seems to me that the book is more "Betsy Vanderhart, Reluctant Adventurer" despite the fact that Tom is the narrator. Betsy commonly solves the problems they encounter, or points out the flaws in Tom's approach to things. Betsy has a familiarity with machines as an engineer that got them out of scrapes in Aluminum Airship, and does so again in Tunnels of Terror.

This adventure is of a flavor familiar to many readers of old pulp fiction – in which Our Heroes discover some hidden group or civilization that, while not inherently hostile to the adventurers, has reason to be wary of or even hate the outside world and thus will not allow them to leave. Naturally we learn much about said civilization, but always with the knowledge that our heroes must find some way to escape… one which will require some shocking event to make possible.

Tom Derringer in the Tunnels of Terror is written for a younger audience, but I didn't find this to make it less enjoyable; it just means I can let my kids read it without concern. I hope that these books do well enough that Lawrence Watt-Evans will continue to write them, because I will keep buying them if he does!

 

Comments

  1. Javahead says:

    I’d been meaning to give these a try. I have most of his earlier books in paperback, but rather lost track in recent years. Thanks for the reminder, Ryk! Just picked up the Tom Derringer 1 & 2 e-books.

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