The Secret City – Pyrates #1



Author: Chris Archer

Publication: Scholastic, 2003

Pages: 192

Overall Rating: bth_35_zps7a173504[1]                       

Rating for Action: bth_4-star-rating_zps38e772a0[1]

Quantity of Action: bth_4-star-rating_zps38e772a0[1]

Age Category: 9-12

Brief Summary:  George lives in a 300 year old house in the heart of New York City.  But the house isn’t just old.  It once belonged to the famous pirate, Captain Kidd, who was briefly married to one of George’s long dead ancestors.  On a dare, George and his friends Derrick and Shannon explore his attic and discover an ancient treasure map carefully concealed in an old wooden desk.  The map leads them to a secret door in his basement, and from there into a series of ancient tunnels beneath the city.  They’re on the hunt for buried treasure, but they aren’t the only ones looking for it, and before long they find themselves caught in world of booby traps and desperate treasure hunters as they explore the strange world of pipes and abandoned subway stations that lie beneath the streets of New York.

Age of Main Character: 11

What I Liked the Most: Archer does a great job bringing to life the world of tunnels and subways that exists beneath New York.  It’s a place full of hidden passages, inhabited by clans of the homeless who live in a world utterly unfamiliar to the rest of us.  It’s a lot of fun to follow George and his friends as they follow the clues on the map and make their way deep underground, exploring the old, crumbling tunnels.  Archer does a good job weaving in booby traps and connecting the ancient tunnels of Captain Kidd to the newer – but still old and abandoned – tunnels that make up the New York Subway System.

What I Liked the Least: There are a lot of things in this book that come together a little too easily.  They just happen to stumble across a map that’s stayed hidden for more than 300 years, concealed in a desk that many members of George’s family have likely used over the generations.  Then they find the secret door in his basement, buried under a scant few inches of dirt in the bottom of an open hole in the corner of his basement – a hole that’s covered over with boxes belonging to his dad and that generations of people must have seen.

***Spoiler Alert*** There’s an incident part way through the book where George and his friends come across a boy, strapped to a chair and being threatened and interrogated by a group of men.  They manage to escape, but later decide to go back and rescue the boy because of an oath they took not to leave anyone behind.  It kind of makes sense, but even within the context of a book about treasure maps and secret tunnels underneath New Your City, I still found it hard to believe that a group of 11 year olds would really venture back into those dank tunnels to face down a gang of armed and violent men in order to rescue a boy they’d never even met.   That seemed like the time when at least one member of their group would have argued for going to their parents or the police.  It made for a good story and some fun action set pieces, but was still hard to believe.

Finally, and this is a minor point, but there were times when it was hard to connect the route they were taking through the tunnels with what I saw on the map.  Things didn’t always seem to add up.

How Good was the Action?  Archer does a good job keeping the action moving and creating some excellent and very narrow escapes for George and his friends without letting things get too tense and scary.  That’s a pretty good feat for a book set in a series of dark and claustrophobic tunnels.  It’s the sort of story that, if written for teens, could have been incredibly tense and terrifying, but Archer manages to keep the tone on the level of a good swashbuckling adventure with just the right edge of fear and uncertainty.  There are plenty of times when George is a hair’s breadth from being captured.  It’s enough to keep the story rushing forward without being too terrifying. 

How Engaging was the Story?   This is a story about action, not character, and Archer does a good job moving the plot forward at a quick pace.  There’s always an obstacle for George and his friends to overcome, a new danger just around the bend, or a goal that lies just out of reach.  It’s definitely enough to keep you turning the pages.

Overall Assessment: This is a fun, swashbuckling adventure with just a touch of history woven in.  The setting is great and the story moves along at a quick pace.  The only downside is the relative ease with which George and his friends find the treasure map and discover the secret door.  It doesn’t feel like either the map or the door could really have stayed hidden for 300 years.  Along the same lines, it sometimes felt like they were able to navigate the tunnels and discover the booby traps a tad too easily, but those are minor concerns in what is an otherwise fun and engrossing adventure.

Profanity: None

Sex: None

Violence: Minimal to none

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