Gregor and the Marks of Secret Review

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Much like with Prophecy of BaneMarks 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.

Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane Review

 

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I considered not reviewing this simply for the sake of avoiding repetition, as this book is almost entirely the same as its predecessor. However, I feel I should review every book in the series as it is, perhaps for lack of experience, my favorite book series. That being the case, a lot of what I’m going to talk about are summarized versions of what I already stated in my review of the first book, so if you find yourself wanting more clarity on the points I bring up, go read that one.

Prophecy of Bane leaves off a month or two after the events of the first book, with Gregor and his family coping with <first novel spoilers>. At some point (about twenty or so pages in), Gregor takes his sister, Boots, out to a park to go sledding in the winter snow. He drifts off into deep thought until he realizes the sun is setting, then calls for Boots to go home. The only problem is, she’s nowhere to be found. This triggers a series of events that lead Gregor back into the Underland, and much to his horror, there is a new prophecy that he’s destined to be a part of.

Right off the bat (ha), one can look at this plot and look at the plot for the first book and go “Oh. These are pretty similar.” I’ve got news for you: most books in the Underland Chronicles are the same. Gregor gets dragged to the Underland through one way or another, he finds out a prophecy tells him he has to go on an adventure, he goes on an adventure, he comes back, then realizes his work isn’t finished with the Underland, whether through another prophecy, the people outright telling him, etc. It’s somewhat like Super Mario Bros., except in novel form and the endings aren’t always happy. This in of itself is an issue for people (like me) who enjoy a variety of things from a particular series. Through Gregor’s case, one can say that the experience makes up for the lackluster storyline, but even so, it’s not always a great experience.

One of the things that the Underland Chronicles does well is provide new issues that follow Gregor throughout the series as a whole, as well as pace them well enough so that they work in terms of foreshadowing. Prophecy of Bane has a wide variety of these issues, such as echolocation, a “Rager” sense, and the identity of the Bane itself. Normally I wouldn’t speak of any of these issues in a review as they are technically spoilers, but the “Rager” sense is an issue with this novel I must discuss, but more on that later. There’s something about the incorporation of these seeded issues that make Prophecy of Bane more enjoyable, and give further interest to later editions of the series. In a sense, Prophecy of Bane is a more intriguing and better shrouded in mystery, while the first book was more about simply showing what the Underland and its denizens strive for. “The set-up,” if you will.

A crucial part of each story in the Underland Chronicles is the adventure Gregor and his comrades set forth upon. Much like the Super Mario Bros. analogy, the adventures tend to re-enact in almost the same way in each title. The humans shove off to fulfill the terms of a prophecy, with a number of returning and new characters making the trip, including, but not limited to, humans, rats, roaches, and bats. They run into one or two key issues during the trek, that may or may not injure/kill a few of the members of the group, leading the rest to either move on slower or have them be sent back to safety, with Gregor feeling bad about how useless he is. All of this leads up to some crucial moment where Gregor’s decision/realization could change the outcome of the trip and the state of the Underland itself. Of course, not all trips play out exactly like that, but they’re all pretty similar to that. Prophecy of Bane is little different, but still enough to feel as though it’s a real adventure. Although, there is one key issue about this particular adventure that has always irked me, even upon my first reading of it: its pacing is weird.

In this adventure, Gregor and co. have to travel by boat into what is referred to as “The Labyrinth,” where the rats are keeping the Bane. They take two boats and fill their capacity with capable members and shove off onto “the Waterway” in the direction of said Labyrinth. The next, oh, hundred pages or so focus on that boat ride. During this time, the novel focuses on dialogue between characters and Gregor thinking. A lot. Add in a few key events here and there and you have yourself half an adventure. On a slow boat ride. With talking and thinking. It’s far too dragged out for its own good and it makes the adventure feel dull. I’m all for character interaction, but a good majority of it seems to be Gregor and co. complaining about the fireflies, who join the quest to make use of their light and are intentionally written as rude and egotistical. Ha ha. There’s too much attention on comic relief and not enough crucial development between characters, aside from Gregor, Luxa, and Howard.

Once the Labyrinth has been breached, it only spends about fifty or so pages within, and some of that is trying to find the Bane and escaping from it. Which leads to Gregor escaping back to Regalia. Great, more traveling. There seems to be a huge amount of time dedicated to traveling in this book. Sometimes it’s drawn out, like the boat ride, and sometimes it’s lightning fast, like after visiting the Labyrinth. There’s not enough action, I feel, within this particular book. Not enough meaningful conversations between secondary characters. Not enough spice to add onto the in-between scenes; the traveling, the planning, the filler. And worse yet, this is when Collins feels she needs to overindulge in description. Unfiltered description with little to no weight is the worse kind of description.

Speaking of description, Prophecy of Bane offers a little more of it than in the first novel, however, as I said above, a lot of it is unnecessary. Describing things like areas that Gregor has already been before. Describing things in the most basic of manners. Fortunately, there is also a good amount of self-description and description of character emotions, which was for the most part lacking in the first novel. Injuries and bruises are detailed spectacularly, enough to make me imagine horrific kinds of things. Crying and anger and anguish. I genuinely feel these characters care about their losses this time around. A lot of carry-on feelings from the first book return as well, which is a nice touch.

The writing, aside from some more description, is still as pragmatic as ever. Gregor does this. Gregor does that. This happens. That happens. Rats do this. Bats do that. Fireflies are dumb. The only real insight given are insights within the mind of Gregor, who is eleven, so he will only think the most mundane and simplistic thoughts ever. Are all rats bad? Are all humans good? Is killing wrong? Am I a monster? Should I be gentle with others’ feelings? Can I judge people from their backgrounds? How is my family? Yeah, yeah, yeah. I realize this is a book for middle schoolers, but c’mon.

I think I may have said it lightly in my review of the first book, but I just can’t believe Gregor is eleven. His mindset and intellectual capabilities paint me the image of an almost grown teenager, maybe sixteen or seventeen. Sure, he doesn’t swear and he’s been through a lot, but really, I don’t know any eleven year old that behaves and thinks as eloquently as Gregor does. Same goes for Luxa. She has a better case as she’s raised under a different culture and she’s shown signs of rebellion and inexperience, but she’s eleven. Eleven year olds shouldn’t act the way Luxa does. Or Gregor, for that matter. It’s not realistic.

Now then, the “Rager” sense. This sense allows Gregor to pick up a weapon and instantly be incredibly skilled with whatever and mow down enemies like he’s playing Dynasty Warriors. This is dumb. Why does he have this? How does he have this? How does this make any sense? How can someone instantly be fine-tuned to know everything about combat with any fighting experience? Is he a robot? Is he a superhero? Why is this just now coming up? Hasn’t he ever been in a fight? When does this sense kick in? Whenever he’s focused? Whenever he has killing intent? Has he never been so mad at anyone that he’s never felt this sensation come upon him? Does he need something in his hand? Why? Why can’t he just activate it? If he can, how does he activate it? Can it be anything in his hand? What about a notebook? A laptop? A plate with a piece of cake on it? A lot of these questions are fucking stupid, yes, but they’re legitimate questions about some made-up sensation that doesn’t have any guidelines. And that’s the issue: it gives Gregor a superpower that makes him more useful than anybody, and, to some extent, invincible. It drops suspense and it encourages fantasy bullshit explanations and resolutions. This isn’t a complete flaw as he only uses it once in any real combat, but it’s the beginning of something that gives him a handicap despite not putting hardly any work into it. Don’t you hate perfect characters?

I wouldn’t call Prophecy of Bane a worser version of the first title, as it has (barely) enough separating it as a “new” adventure. As a kid, Prophecy of Bane was always my least favorite title in the series, however, upon re-reading it, I think it slightly edges out the first book in most ways. My enjoyment of the first book is still intact, but Prophecy of Bane is an overall improvement objectively in regards to what the first title in the series set for itself. There’s better suspense, better description (to a degree), better character interaction (between major characters), and more reason for the reader to continue the series by book’s end. If I were scoring these, I’d rate it higher than the first book, but I feel the first title had a sort of magic that made it more enjoyable. Nevertheless, Prophecy of Bane is enough of a kick for the Underland Chronicles to progress the series in the right direction.