I read Escape the Mask, the first book in David Ward's Grassland Trilogy, in one sitting, because I simply could NOT put it down. Escape the Mask is an action-filled survival story aimed at middle grade readers (though I think it would also be an excellent pick for reluctant teen readers). It's a very quick read, a lovely small-format hardcover that feels a bit like a journal.
The first-person narrator, 12-year-old Coriko, has spent most of his life working as a slave in Grassland. He can't remember any other life. He spends his days in a field, gathering metallic shards, and his nights in a cell beneath a mountain. His every movement is watched over by the Shields, cruel masked guards who never speak, but who dole out beatings and other punishments. The only bright spot in Coriko's life is his friendship with his cellmate and work partner, Pippa, the only other slave who speaks his home language. As the book begins, however, change is coming to Grassland. Outsiders attack, and the child slaves find themselves in danger from all sides, seeking to escape.
Escape the Mask reminded me a little bit of The City of Ember, in that you have two kids living a very circumscribed life, only dimly aware of the larger world. However, Coriko and Pippa's world is considerably more bleak than Doon and Lina's. Theirs is a world where children may be killed if they don't collect enough shards, or if they allow other kids to steal shards from them. A world where the weak children are weeded out, cruelly, on arrival to Grassland. A world where cellmates are everything to one another. I found it fascinating. And I thought that David Ward managed to keep the story accessible for younger kids, by adding humor, and by refraining from graphic detail. (In this latter sense, the book reminds me a bit of the later books in Suzanne Collins' Underland Chronicles series).
Escape the Mask explores complex ideas about identify, loyalty, and motivation. Coriko and Pippa balance the quest for survival (Coriko's strength) against doing what is right (Pippa's wish). This is a book that will inspire reflection and discussion, even as readers rapidly turn the pages to find out what happens next. I recommend it highly, especially for science fiction and dystopian fiction fans (think John Christopher's White Mountains trilogy), and fans of realistic survival stories. As the first book in a trilogy, Escape the Mask does leave quite a few questions unanswered. There's enough resolution to satisfy readers - the ending is not a cliffhanger - but it certainly left me wanting to get my hands on the second book: Beneath the Mask.
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication Date: April 1, 2008
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Thumbs Up 2009, Flamingnet Young Adult Book Blog, ALAN Online
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.