“Ren,” I whispered. I pulled on his arm to get him to stop. “Did you hear that?”
He stopped and listened, but we were met with silence. Ren turned to me and raised his eyebrows, asking if we could keep going. I nodded and lifted my lightstick so it illuminated as much of the tunnel as possible.
Its beam landed on a tiny, filthy creature. She crouched against the wall with her arm covering her face. I looked at Ren. He was staring at her in shock. “It’s okay,” I breathed, more to myself than her.
I took a step forward, but Ren put a hand on my arm, stopping me from going closer. The female stayed hunched over but lifted her face and peeked out at me with enormous eyes. Her hair grew in patchy tufts all over her head. Every boney joint was visible on stick thin arms and legs. The tunic she wore barely covered her.
“She’s just a child,” I said to Ren and pulled my arm out of his grip so I could crouch down.
Underland is the sequel to Pulse Point, a YA dystopian science fiction novel about a City enclosed to protect its citizens from environmental collapse. Unbeknownst to most citizens, energy to support their comfortable life is generated from salt mined by slave children in tunnels under the city.
The novel alternates between two narrators: Sari, a citizen of the city, and Ama, one of the slave children. Sari was best friends with Kaia who left the City in Pulse Point to search for her mother. With no news of either Kaia or Lev, the latter having been sent to find Kaia, Sari begins to search for answers. With the help of Ren, a sympathetic overseer, and a few other young people who have questions about what goes on in the city, Sari discovers the tunnels and the children.
Ama and two imprisoned men, Jacob and Noah, have been digging a tunnel to escape, but they have no idea how long it will take to reach the surface. There are increasing earth tremors and collapsing tunnels threatening the children’s lives. Ama’s best friend Romi reaches puberty, which means she will be taken away to become a mother and Ama will never see her again. When Jacob is taken away, Ama goes looking for him and encounters Sari and Ren.
Sari tries to convince her friends that they need to do something about the children, but they are afraid of the overseers and worried about giving up their comfortable lives. Ama tells the other children about the tunnel and tries to convince them to escape, but they have a religion that gives meaning to their underground life and they are afraid of change and of angering Big Father and Big Mother.
Kaia and Jacob return with a group of people from outside the city and dam the city’s water supply as a diversion to allow Jacob to rescue the slave children. Ama convinces the children to follow Jacob to the outside. Sari negotiates with the outsiders to save the city from collapsing due to the unstable tunnels and water pressure.
This sequel is tighter and better written than the first novel. Ama is a particularly engaging protagonist. The compassion and aggravation she displays with four-year-old Luken, whom she is training to haul rock, make her both sympathetic and believable; these scenes movingly demonstrate the children’s predicament. Ama develops convincingly from a storyteller to a leader; her curiosity, hope and courage lift them all out of the darkness.
Sari is a character from the first novel who has a redemption arc in Underland. She betrayed Kaia by agreeing to be matched with Lev, who Kaia loves, because she wanted status. Now she thinks it’s her fault Kaia left, and her worry about her friends leads her to begin questioning everything about the City she took for granted. Her growth from someone who accepts a system that gives her privilege to someone with awareness and compassion, willing to sacrifice for others, is believable and relatable.
The pacing works because the plot is kept simple and the stakes are clear. Like most dystopian scenarios, this one would not stand up to close scrutiny, but it doesn’t have to. The story works to illustrate the modern world’s Faustian bargain of great comfort and security at the expense of the environment and the unprivileged. It convincingly portrays the human instinct to resist change opposed to the resilient values of compassion, justice and freedom. The Unders’ religion is depicted with impressive nuance: it serves as a tool to keep the children obedient, but then it also provides the faith and courage they need to escape and start a new life.
Readers who enjoyed Pulse Point might be disappointed that Kaia and Lev don’t play prominent roles in Underland, but they will quickly be absorbed in Sari and Ama’s stories. Underland could be read as a standalone and will be enjoyed by anyone who likes dystopian fiction.
Kim Aippersbach is a writer, editor and mother of three living in Vancouver, British Columbia.