The roar came again, and this time blue light came with it, throwing back the shadows and leaping toward them like flames hungry for a forest. The earthy-oily smell made them cough and sputter as they lunged forward, the oncoming blue light guiding the way. Fosa doubled their speed. When their breath was nearly gone, something else happened. There was a crackling sound like a summer storm, and fork lightning struck the ceiling right above their heads. The roof crashed and fell behind them in a torrent of stones and wood and dirt.
Directly ahead, Mirror's candle illuminated her frightened face and her arms spread wide to stop them from overshooting her and Fulcrum. They slammed and clumped together, vying for balance. Axel and Fosa stared anxiously behind, but Mirror spoke first.
“Air!” she gasped. “From the ceiling. A vent.”
“What happened back there?” asked Fulcrum, peering over them.
Fosa and Axel exchanged glances. “Something terrible,” Fosa finally said. “Don't know what - but it's bad.”
Thirteen-year-old Axel’s city, family and friends are all in peril. The city of Ballista, Axel’s home where his father is the chief engineer and his mother is an ambassador, is rioting against the engineers, the only people who can help them fight the forces of Aqueous. Aqueous is one of the five cities that is seeking to conquer the others, Calor, Ager, Venti and Ballista. When Axel’s father returns to their home horribly injured, he tells Axel and his friends, Fosa, Fulcrum and Mirror (who are all engineering apprentices) to escape through a secret tunnel in their home and run to Calor. However, during their escape, they discover that Axel’s butler, Benet is a spy for Aqueous. Benet tells them that Aqueous' king, the Hydra, is plotting to destroy Ballista and kill the last of the royal line in Ager. The group of apprentices decide that they must go to Ager to stop the Hydra and save their way of life. However, this is no easy feat, and they are up against dangerous people and must use all the ingenuity and skill they’ve learned not only to save everyone but also survive.
Ward's creative novel is one that features compelling and realistically written spies and political tensions. The insights offered into how the cities are run in their own ways and how they interact with each other are extremely grounded and interesting. Each city and town Axel’s group goes to seems to have its own unique characteristics. There is also some unique and thoughtful insight into war and the havoc it wreaks in Axel’s world that resonates with our own.
In addition to his worldbuilding, Ward has created a lightning paced novel that starts with Axel’s running away from an angry mob and doesn’t stop to take a breath after that. While the pace is attention grabbing and keeps readers interested, there are some plot points that suffer from underdevelopment. The setting of the five cities, each with its own special property (fire, water, seeds, engineering and wind) is very intriguing, but the mention of a sixth city found in the underground tunnels could be explored more. The magic used in the novel could also be more thoroughly explained, such as the healing magic in Ager, and how Fosa contacts Ballista for help in her dreams.
Although certain aspects remain underdeveloped, Ward’s characters are well-developed considering the length of the book, and the relationships between them are both strong and a delight to read. All of the four main characters have their own distinct personalities and relate to the world and each other in their own ways.
Undermine is a fast paced and engaging read that creates a world all its own. Even though aspects of the plot may be underdeveloped, overall Ward has made a well-written adventure story that offers some thought-provoking commentary on war and love.
Deanna Feuer is an English Literature graduate from the University of the Fraser Valley. She lives in Langley, British Columbia.