Beneath the Mask is the sequel to Escape the Mask, which I reviewed here. The third book in the Grassland Trilogy, Beyond the Mask, will be out later this spring. This review contains spoilers for the first book, so stop here if you haven't read it. The Grassland Trilogy is set in dystopian world in which people called Spears kidnap children from distant settlements, to use them as slaves. The Spears treat the children cruelly, and don't even seem human to the kids. In the first book, the slave children, called Diggers, take advantage of a war to escape their prison. As Beneath the Mask begins, they are living on their own, with a community of like-minded children battling for survival against a mass of other feral escapees. It turns out, however, that the children haven't escaped the tyranny of the Spears after all. In Beneath the Mask, they learn just what it is that would make someone willing to become a Spear, and how far they are willing to go to ensure one another's survival.
The thing that's striking to me about this series is how brilliant the Spears are. They treat the children brutally, pit them against one another, and give each child only one person in the world to depend on (the child's cellmate). Inevitably, each child loves his or her cellmate with absolute dependence. The cellmates are boy-girl pairs, and this is no coincidence, either. When the children are old enough, when they start to hit puberty, the Spears use their love for their cellmates to control them. Horrible, but brilliant.
Like Escape the Mask, Beneath the Mask is fast-paced and suspenseful, with a brooding atmosphere. I really felt for the characters, too, especially for the narrator, Coriko. Beneath the Mask doesn't take the easy way out on the ethical dilemmas faced by Coriko and his friends. There are several points where they must make choices, and the right choice isn't always clear. And what's right isn't even necessarily the same for all of them.
Each character is visibly shaped by his or her upbringing. Pippa, who does remember a happy childhood, is the moral compass of the group. Tia, the oldest, extends her feeling of responsibility to her younger brother to the other children, too. Coriko, who doesn't remember his childhood outside of the Grassland, is hugely influenced in his choices by what Pippa would think. Here are two examples that show the impact of Coriko's restricted viewpoint on his reaction to new experiences:
"My breath clouded in front of my face and I poked at it constantly. We did not see the cold very often in Grassland." (Page 113)
"A table and chairs took up most of the space, although children's playthings lay strewn about the hearth as they had been dropped. Family. And what had Pippa called the playthings? toys. Shapes of animals made of wood, a ball, and one object that looks something like a girl, with wool for hair..." (Page 118)
Imagine never having seen a toy, or not knowing what a ball is? Even when he does bad things (and he does), the reader aches for Coriko. This series reminds me a bit of the Gregor the Overlander books - while they are relatively easy reads, set in intriguing settings, and suitable for middle grade readers, the books tackle real moral choices and complex behaviors. This is a series that I'll be keeping, because I think that I'll want to read it again. The second book definitely lives up to the promise of the first. Highly recommended for fans of dystopian literature or adventure/quest stories, boys and girls.
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication Date: August 1, 2008
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Confessions of a Literary Persuasion
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.