Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Series Review: The Underland Chronicles (Gregor the Overlander)

Series: The Underland Chronicles
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: Children's Book/ Middle Grade Reader, Fantasy, Adventure

Series Overview

Since his father disappeared, it's up to 11-year-old Gregor to look after his younger sisters, while his mother struggles to put food on the table. When toddler sister Boots tumbles through a hole in the laundry grate, Gregor doesn't hesitate to leap in after her. What he finds below is a dark, cavernous world populated by giant rats, bats, and bugs that live beside normal-sized humans with translucent skin and violet eyes.

Led by soon-to-be-queen Luxa, the humans of Underland rule a magnificent glowing city called Regalia and train incessantly to do battle with their mortal enemies, the Gnawers (or, as Overlanders call them, rats). Gregor's arrival is enough to push the two kingdoms to the brink of war. According to a number of ancient prophecies, the humans are doomed, unless a mysterious "warrior" from the overland aids them on their quests.

Gregor has no desire to be this "warrior," nor fulfill any prophecy. But fate intervenes, and he has no choice. Soon he and Boots are off and running with the brave and arrogant Luxa, bonded bats devoted to their humans, friendly cockroaches, and even a wise-cracking rat with hidden motives for joining the humans. From a rescue mission deep inside the rat kingdom to a sea voyage into a labyrinth to a search for life-saving medicine in a poisonous jungle, Gregor's adventures will bring out abilities he never knew he had. Perhaps this peace-loving boy really can be the warrior.

Series Review

I find the writing of Suzanne Collins (author of The Hunger Games) addicting. After reading Gregor the Overlander, the first of The Underland Chronicles, I felt compelled to get my hands on the second book. Wisely, I ordered the next four books of The Underland Chronicles together, and when they finally arrived, I devoured them one after the other, like chocolate truffles in a sampler box.

It probably has to do with the way Suzanne Collins builds the suspense. Gregor has become the caretaker of his family; every minute he stays in Underland, he causes worry to his mother and leaves dependent members of the family to fend for themselves. Of course Underland has problems of its own, and there's almost always some kind of crisis going on which requires the warrior, as well as a prophecy predicting that things will get much, much worse. Now the prophecies tend to be cryptic and subject to more than one interpretation, so even when you think you know where it's going, you probably don't.

All this is enough to keep the pages turning. But then we're introduced to our companions. Most of them don't get along, are hiding secrets, are mortal enemies, or all of the above. The quest sets off, and there's action, action, and more action, pausing only enough to get to know our new friends. But be careful who you grow to like, because characters die constantly—at least one in every book. And even after the crisis has been averted, the underlying hostilities between rats and humans are still boiling hot.

The interesting thing is that Gregor, though named the Warrior, is probably one of the most peaceful characters in the books. He doesn't have the same prejudice as the Underlanders and is willing to accept almost all of his companions. He's quick to apologize, quick to forgive, quick to come to the aid of anyone he thinks is being bullied or treated unfairly. He's not always perfect, but he's willing to understand. He's a genuinely good guy.

And like all good guys, he gets put through the wringer. I'm starting to think Katniss had it easy compared to all that Gregor had to go through. Not only is he an unarmed kid pitted against monstrous rats and told to carry out prophecies he can't understand, he has to do it while babysitting a toddler. Most of the adults don't care a whit for his safety. If they're not shoving him into dangerous quests or expecting him to fight in a war, they're locking him in dungeons or trying to stone him. And these are the "good guys."

This should give you an idea that while talking animals and rhyming prophecies sound all very cute, this is actually a pretty intense series. The main themes are war and peace, and the books deal with such light and fluffy subjects as child soldiers, biological warfare, and genocide. All the while characters are decapitated, devoured alive by mites, suffocated, and thrown to their deaths. I swear, if these weren't animals dying, this book would be slapped with an R rating.

Don't get me wrong; it's not that I don't think kids can handle it. It just gets dark and depressing at time, especially in the last two books.

I'm a little torn with how the series ended. On the one hand, threads from as early as Book 2 got tied into the ending, nice and neat. But then there were some things I thought were being set-up—interesting characters, new skills—that either didn't go anywhere or ended up being too little, too late. 

Moreover, the story ended on a bit of a depressing note. For as much as it was teased that peace might be possibly, war ultimately reigned, and it was sad and violent and morally ambiguous. Realistic? Perhaps. But in a kid’s book about giant talking animals, I’d prefer a little fantasy.

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