Much like with Prophecy of Bane, Marks of Secret is a book that felt like a step-down in my mind, serving primarily as the set-up to bigger and better things in the final book. I never found myself so taken with reading the fourth book during my childhood years, primarily because it felt more like a set-up and not its own individual story. Years go by and I begin to read them not just for fun, but for objective critique, and by the time I had gotten to the halfway point of Marks of Secret, it became clear that this is the best book in the Underland Chronicles thus far.
What stands out immediately with this entry in the series is that it diverges from the formula that the three books prior had in setting up the scenario of the “quest.” There is no “prophecy” to uphold, no hurdles to jump through to even get Gregor down to the Underland. Due to the events of Curse of the Warmbloods, Gregor has every reason to frequent the Underland, and even admits early on that the place isn’t so bad outside of the perils of fighting off rats. The time it normally takes to establish the homelife, the current situation, and just getting Gregor to go on a quest is nearly cut in half thanks to Gregor’s willingness to actually step forward. That’s not to say the “quest” in this book starts immediately, as the first fifty or so pages are dedicated to not just to keeping up with Gregor and his family, but keeping up with Luxa and her own family. There is a greater focus on Underland characters’ home life, which is a welcome addition in order to give them a little perspective and development as the pages go by. The quest that takes place in this book happens by circumstance and is heightened by the emphasis of the unknown.
This style of intro, along with the outro, are the things that differ from other books. However, the bulk of the meat in-between remains the same flavor. The quest goes along the same style of event here, event there; bad thing happens that slows the pace, then an inevitable climax gives way to a shocking revelation. If you’ve read the three previous books, Marks of Secret will not throw any curveballs at you in terms of story structure. It fiddles along the beaten path and continues to scorch the Earth with its eruption of formulaic lava.
Speaking of characters, they still have every excuse to bring as many along on the quest as possible, including a bunch of children who are otherwise useless to everyone and everything. Boots is still a baby, therefore not useful at all and only serves as being a baby. Characters from the previous book return, along with recurring characters that get a chance to show how useful to questing they really are (Howard). Then there are new characters such as Thalia and Cartesian who are there. For all the good Marks of Secret does with character growth and interaction, new characters are quite similar to shadows in this book. They’re there, but never contribute or do anything major. They could even be written out of the book and no one would bat (ha) an eye. Fortunately, what’s lost in potential with new characters is made up with growth from the established characters, such as Gregor, Luxa, Howard, or Ripred. Luxa in particular is a major focus within this book, primarily due to her allegiance to the mice (different from rats) colony. She alone drives the plot forward due to her dedication to protect those close to her, bringing out a side to her that was subdued in previous books. It is with this change in spirit—or perhaps the experiences developing over time—that leads to Gregor looking at her in a more rosy light.
Something that was very lightly touched upon in previous books that becomes a focal point for Marks of Secret is the inclusion of romance. There are characters that are affectionate to one another in loving ways in previous entries, but this book brings that romantic aspect front and center, parading the mind of a confused twelve-year-old boy. Gregor’s growing desire for Luxa (and an implied vice-versa) is incorporated rather shakily, beginning with the cover of Gregor and Luxa going on a “date” prior to the quest beginning. This idea shapes the mindset of the two involved to think upon what could be possible for the two, but perhaps only because it entered their minds seriously for the first time. I’m not huge on this type of romantic development, to have something suddenly shake the foundation of a relationship based upon a suggestion, or the idea of what could be possible. Luxa and Gregor have had an off-and-on relationship up to this point, sharing feelings with one another and otherwise supporting each other, though any indication of a romantic attraction would be a reach. It’s as if the idea of a date spurned up the pre-teen anxiety within the two to see each other more affectionately than before. Like flipping a switch.
While it began abruptly, what follows is up for interpretation. I can’t decide whether the development of Gregor and Luxa’s relationship is more angsty or child-like. One page they’re laughing and playing with each other, the next they’re arguing about politics, only to be laughing and playing with each other again in the next twenty pages. It’s a rollercoaster ride of conflicting emotions and poignant passion, which I can understand from the situation and the fact they’re both twelve. Wouldn’t it be better suited for these two to, I don’t know, not be bipolar? It feels almost like forced drama. The way Luxa is spurned with every disagreement from Gregor implies that she feels attacked whenever he’s not on her side. The way Gregor is so keen on doing so to spite her is childish enough. They’re both children. Thing is, when the novel paints these characters relatively mature all throughout the course of the series, only to have the aspect of romance drive them into an emotionally-fueled corner, it gives the impression that it was thought up on a whim. Despite this, and all that was said above in terms of romance, I enjoyed the development with giddy guilt.
The best thing Marks of Secret does, better than any book before it, is the prospect of genuine suspense. Not only that, but using it in a way that feels like its importance grows with every clue found. At first, it becomes one person’s problem. Then another, and another, until eventually the state of the Underland becomes the clam before the storm. The build-up within is beautifully paced and spectacularly jingled in the face of the reader. Not only does it endanger all inhabitants of the Underland, but it begins through the connection one (Luxa) has with an established comrade(s). The weight of importance is apparent for those who have developed a meaningful attachment to Luxa, specifically, or have kept up with the “lore,” so to speak, of the Underland’s hierarchy. What strengthens this is the inclusion of little bits and pieces of information being provided at a steady rate (though admittedly, some are more coincidental than others). A looming danger, larger than anyone could have imagined, is being planned behind the scenes.
Of all the characters who receive a good amount of attention in this novel, one character whose importance shines considerably is the Bane, the focal point of the second novel. Even mentioning him is slightly spoiling the second novel, for which I apologize, but his inclusion should be noted. I don’t think the way he’s presented—weak, mentally unstable—is good enough indication to see him as a genuine threat later on. In the span of a couple weeks, he grows from whiny and psychopathic to menacing and persuasive. Rats have a quicker rate of growth than humans do, which has been established, but a couple weeks producing that much of a change is questionable writing. His role in the novel is important, but the incorporation of that, aside from the main plan being developed, feels a little too good to be true.
Character banter, aside from Luxa and Gregor’s more dramatic monologues, is back and more charming than ever. Even without Ripred for a majority of the novel’s walls, the inclusion of Howard and a few returning guests gives life to an otherwise grim situation. Howard in particular really shines as a standalone character, giving reason for people to praise his status as a character. His interaction with Luxa, Gregor, Nike, and even Boots relinquishes a witty, caring personality and caretaker mentality that the questers needed without knowing they needed it. Luxa and Hazard have good interaction, along with Gregor and, well, everyone else. Even Temp, the quiet, off to the side character who has appeared on every quest in the entire series so far, has a few humorous lines with other characters. It’s amazing how much effort was put into making these characters feel close to one another, and it works spectacularly.
What has been one of the more fluctuating concerns for Collins’ works is her use of description. Marks of Secret is in-between good and bad with her description, with some scenes getting a lot of vivid description, while others resort along the lines of “They flew for hours.” Key scenes in particular, such as the climax or key events, are described with a lot of sensory description. It gives a lot of life into the scenes that otherwise could have been left to interpretation, dulling the impact they could’ve had. This book in particular is actually quite gory. Lots of death and blood and horrifying ways of dying are described in such detail that one would think Collins’ watched the Final Destination series as inspiration. These books are directed at young teenagers, but even young teenagers would find this a little over their limit. The use of darkness is still a handy tool for copping out on descriptive detail, but a good portion of the book takes place in lighter areas, giving more attention to filling the page with Gregor’s vision rather than actions. I would say it’s so-so.
Upon my third reading of these books, Marks of Secret is the first of the series to give me that sense of “I can’t put this book down!” I enjoyed the three books prior enough to look forward to continuing them, but this is the first that made me hesitate stopping at the page I predetermined to be the stopping point. I would go on longer than I anticipated, waiting for an appropriate time to stop and finding none. There’s a special vibe of enticement to the end of most chapters in Marks of Secret; so much so that even knowing all that was going to happen later on, I didn’t want to wait to fulfill my own prophecies. I felt for the characters and their plights, and I felt that sense of loneliness that Gregor had to bear knowing he would forever be different from the friends he made in a world foreign to him. It was the first time I had felt that sense of emotional empathy from my third reading of the books so far. And if Marks of Secret can manage to do that after three readings to someone who doesn’t crack a smile at even the most sentimental of media, it must be doing something right.