For Stephen, his life on base is much the same as most other children’s. The difference is in the details. Look both ways before crossing a tank path and be sure to check if the spent bullet casings you find in the long-abandoned trenches are actually empty. Sports stop at the sound of the evening trumpet call as he and his friends stand at attention while the flag is retired. Quantico Cave is a story of friendship and competition, and when Stephen meets up with a friend he once knew at a previous home station, the contest hits a whole new level that places everyone at risk.
The book starts with a prologue that explains for the reader some of the basics of what it’s like as a military family living on base. For someone who isn’t from a military family this was great information and was definitely helpful in setting the context for the book.
The story itself starts out with the main character, 12 year old Stephen, in an orienteering competition against a couple of his friends. We see that he’s hearing his Dad’s voice in his head, reminding him of advice he’s received in the past – “Be a leader. Stay calm and be steady”. Throughout the book we really see the influence of Stephen’s dad and his desire to not disappoint him. We also see the pressure on the family and kids to not do anything that will reflect poorly on the adult that is in the military. The story takes us through Stephen’s life, his friendships and conflicts. The climax at the end of the story was definitely tense but I had a couple of issues with the lead up to it. Stephen’s friendship/rivalry with Rick is a bit strange. He says in the book multiple times that he and Rick are friends, yet Rick does some pretty mean things to him. I found the passage of time to be poorly indicated, and a bit confusing, as well Chapter 9 starts with a new school semester and then Chapter 11 has them heading back to school without every indicating that there was a break or vacation. I also found that the story kind of just meandered along for most of the book. While the military base life component was interesting I didn’t feel that there was a strong story arc pulling us along. As I mentioned, there’s a big climax/event at the end of the book, but there isn’t a big lead up to it.
This is definitely a Middle Grade book, and I think it would appeal to younger male readers. There’s a lot of imagination, play and boys rough-housing that is typical for kids when they have access to relatively safe outdoor space (ie in the country or on base, not so much in the city) and many readers could likely relate. But I did find myself waiting for action and I think especially younger readers may need a bit more of a plot line to pull them through the story. I guess I didn’t really feel like Stephen and Rick were in a competition with each other, so much as Rick was acting like a bully throughout. I also had a hard time following the dream sequence and the imagination bits that happened in the cave.
Overall, this just didn’t work for me. I found myself confused at times and feeling the need for a stronger story arc. I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review as part of a blog tour and likely would have DNF’d this if not for that.