Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Gregor the Overlander, The Underland Chronicles 1-5, by Suzanne Collins- Review

I've had this lovely box set sitting on my shelves for a bit now, and when Christmas rolled around I decided it was time to dig into Suzanne Collins first series of books.  As millions of others, the Hunger Games rocked my socks off, so it was a natural progression to want to read the rest of her work.  It was ridiculously hard to get your hands on it until the movie buzz started, but now you should be able to find the series loose or in boxed sets almost anywhere.

From Goodreads, Gregor the Overlander-Book 1:
When eleven-year-old Gregor follows his little sister through a grate in the laundry room of their New York apartment, he hurtles into the dark Underland beneath the city. There, humans live uneasily beside giant spiders, bats, cockroaches, and rats—but the fragile peace is about to fall apart.

Gregor wants no part of a conflict between these creepy creatures. He just wants to find his way home. But when he discovers that a strange prophecy foretells a role for him in the Underland's uncertain future, he realizes it might be the only way to solve the biggest mystery of his life. Little does he know his quest will change him and the Underland forever

The series has a slow start, introductions to the brutal and bizarre Underland are a bit complex and strange.  I suppose this will seem odd, but I found the history of the Underlanders stranger than the giant bugs and rats.  Supposedly they were lead underground by the Earl of Sandwich?  No real explanation why the Earl of Sandwich or why they felt the need to go underground but that's the set up.  Also, the Earl was a bit of prophecy teller, and none of it was positive, which makes me really wonder why he thought this whole relocation was a good idea, however once the story starts to get past the intro and into the adventure proper it does take off.

Gregor is very likable, but it's his little sister Boots that sold the whole series for me.  Especially her affinity with the Cockroaches.  She's funny, lovable and more than anyone else she's what I stuck around for in the first book. 

Boots, who loved any kind of compliment, instinctively knew she was being admired.  She stretched out her chubby arms to the giant insects. "I poop," she said graciously, and they gave an appreciative hiss.
  "Be she princess, Overlander, be she?  Be she queen, be she?" Asked the leader, dipping its head in slavish devotion.

Gregor grows, character wise, quite a bit in the first book but he really doesn't start to hold his own until book two, Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane.

Like many debuts, book one isn't the strongest of the series.  By book two Suzanne starts to dig into the meat of the story and really start to look at war, segregation and prejudices.  Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane is also when I started being more intrigued by her other characters, Ripred was one of my favorites after Boots, but Gregor, the bats and the underlanders all start to have much more depth.

Between the Hunger Games and the Gregor series its obvious war, violence, prejudice and the struggle to live are of major interest to Collins.  It's intriguing to see how she presents it for a middle grade audience versus the young adult audience.  The edge is still there, but there's a softness to it that is definitely lacking in the Hunger Games.  The humor is one of the biggest differences, but the ability to return to the safety of his family at any time is also a big change.  I was the most impressed by the fact she doesn't dumb down the brutality for the younger crowd, she pulls all the same punches of loss, betrayal and the struggle for survival that she does in HG.

By the end of the series I was very attached to all the main players, and I was on the edge of my seat to see the outcome of the violence.  And although the prophecies were a bit of a contrived way to keep dragging Gregor and his family into the Underlanders issues, I was willing to forgive it because the rest of the story was strong.

An adventurous romp through a truly bizarre fantasy world, Gregor the Overlander has a slow build but it's well worth the effort of getting through the first slightly bumpy patch.  It's the sort of story that's not only enjoyable, and often funny, but it also has great things to say about heavy topics not regularly broached in middle grade lit.  If you're one of the die-hard fans whose read the books, are about to see the movies and have been dying to dig into more Suzanne Collins goodness then you won't go wrong grabbing the Gregor series.

Gregor the Overlander (1), by Suzanne Collins
Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane (2), by Suzanne Collins
Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods (3), by Suzanne Collins
Gregor and the Marks of Secret (4), by Suzanne Collins
Gregor and the Code of Claw (5), by Suzanne Collins
Published by Scholastic, May 2005-May 2007
Buy The Underland Chronicles on Amazon