Gregor the Overlander
by Suzanne Collins
Recommended Age: 11+
In Scholastic’s “About the Author” blurb, Suzanne Collins explains her first novel as a 21st-century, New York City version of Alice in Wonderland – in the sense that instead of a rabbit hole, you might fall down a manhole – and what you would find at the bottom would be quite different too. What 11-year-old Gregor finds is an underground kingdom populated by purple-eyed people who live in harmony with giant bats (“fliers”). Their uneasy allies include giant spiders (called “spinners”) and giant cockroaches (“crawlers”). And their chief enemy is a race of man-sized, man-eating rats (“gnawers”).
Gregor lives in New York City with his demented grandmother, his emotionally wounded mother, and two younger sisters. Gregor has to be the man of the house. While his sister Lizzie goes to summer camp and his mother to work, Gregor takes care of Grandma and the youngest child in the family, a two-year-old girl nicknamed Boots who was born after their father disappeared. One day Gregor and Boots inadvertently find out where their father disappeared to when they are sucked down an air shaft into the Underland.
At first, all Gregor wants to do is get home to comfort his worried mother. But soon, he finds out that his father has been taken prisoner by the rats. And everyone thinks that a vague, centuries-old prophecy means that Gregor will be the warrior who saves the underland city of Regalia from the warlike rats. Soon, Gregor is on a quest of twelve companions, four of whom (according to the Prophecy of Grey) will not survive the journey. Even though he is only a child and knows nothing about war or the ways of the Underland, Gregor must find it in himself to bring peace to Regalia, and to bring his father home.
This is the first book in a proposed series of five called The Underland Chronicles, though at the time of this writing, there is only one other book in the series — Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane. Once you start reading this book, you will be sucked in for good. Hooray! Yet another series in progress, for which you can wait impatiently for the next book to come out!
Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane
by Suzanne Collins
Recommended Age: 12+
Somewhere or other, Suzanne Collins claimed that she conceived the Underland Chronicles as a modern, urban answer to Alice in Wonderland. To be sure, what Gregor finds at the bottom of a manhole in Central Park is jarringly different from the topsy-turvyland Alice found at the bottom of her English rabbit hole. It is so different, in fact, that I am inclined to think of Underland as more of an Oz for the twenty-first century.
Consider this: like Dorothy of Kansas, Gregor of New York is part of a loving family circle that suffers from horrendous poverty. This is not the sort of “ever after” you expect after Gregor’s heroics in rescuing his long-lost father from giant rats and bringing him home. Dad is still sick in body and mind. Grandma still thinks she is on the old farm in Virginia where she grew up. Mom can scarcely earn enough money to pay the bills and put food on the table. And with two beloved younger sisters to think about, Gregor is the one who goes hungry most often. Even with the help of a kindly, and suspiciously knowledgeable, lady from the apartment upstairs, you look at this family and think: “Gee, somebody should do something about this.”
Somebody does. Several somebodies. Unfortunately, those somebodies are giant rats, and the something that they do is to attempt to kidnap and murder Gregor’s baby sister Boots.
Why? Well, the rats have learned of a prophecy by the visionary founder of the Underland city of Regalia, Bartholomew of Sandwich. For the prophecy of Bane predicts that only Gregor – the “Overland warrior” – can destroy the great white hope of the rats and their bid to wipe out all humans in the Underland. But they also believe that if they kill Gregor’s baby sister, Boots, it will break Gregor’s spirit and he won’t be able to stop them. It’s like an arms race – whoever hits their target first, wins all. And Gregor has never felt himself to be much of a warrior, after all.
Before Gregor knows what’s happening, he and Boots are back in Regalia, preparing for another quest deep into Rat territory. This time they must cross monster-infested waters, depend on allies who may or may not be dependable, and overcome epic portions of anger, fear, grief, and hatred. Gregor learns staggering things about the amazing Underland, about who his true friends are, and about himself. But the most dangerous part of his adventure may happen after his quest is complete....
I am amazed at how colorful and lovable Collins makes her characters and the strange world in which they live and, in some cases, die. I am even more amazed at the menace, the mystery, the gut-clenching action and the deeply moving drama that unfolds around them. Did I say this was like Oz? I must have been out of my mind! This is like no world of danger and destiny you have ever entered before. And by the time Gregor comes out of it, all you’ll want to know is when he’s going back in!
Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods
by Suzanne Collins
Recommended Age: 12+
Book Three in the Underland Chronicles finds Gregor still trying to work out the meaning of the Prophecy of Blood, given to him at the end of Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane. Whatever it means, the weird backward-written prophecy isn’t going to be easy on Gregor’s family. His father’s health is deteriorating again. His mother is terrified of letting her children disappear again, and forbids them from going down to the laundry room where the entrance to the Underland lies. Grandma is slowly slipping away, and Gregor’s next-younger sister Lizzie is a nervous wreck.
But it looks like Gregor and his toddler-sister Boots will have to go back down the strange world miles below New York City – no matter what his mother thinks. A plague is coming that could wipe out every warm-blooded being in the Underland, unless Gregor and Boots go back. Gregor isn’t comfortable with his role as the warrior, any more than he cares to bring Boots into danger. But his mother likes it even less – so little, in fact, that she insists on going with them to the Underland for what they are told is only a meeting to decide what to do next.
The meeting turns into an all-out quest for the cure, and Gregor and Boots have no choice to be a part of it. Not when Gregor’s bonded flyer, the giant bat Ares, turns out to be but one of several friends infected with the plague. And certainly not when Mom herself gets exposed!
Gregor’s third adventure is another test in many ways. As a test of his echolocation skills (the ability to “see” in the dark, using his ears and clicks of the tongue), it doesn’t go very well. As a test of his abilities as the “berserker” warrior whose battle rage can make a split-second difference between life and death, it isn’t a picnic either. Then there’s the test, for the whole search party, of the ability of humans, giant rats, and giant cockroaches, and other creatures to get along with each other and work together. Family loyalties, the ethics of warfare, the ability to unravel a centuries-old riddle, the ability to tell friend from foe, and the courage to face strange and terrifying dangers in a deadly jungle and a “Vineyard of Eyes,” are all tested in brutal succession...and not everyone will come back from the quest.
This is a serious, dark, thought-provoking tale, set in a marvellous fantasy world and filled with deeply conflicted, deeply interesting characters. The setting is like a 21st-century New Yorker’s nightmare-version of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, but the story itself is full of disturbing portents and sinuous plots. Each one goes deeper into the mysteries of the Underland, and even at the end of this story you know we haven’t reached the bottom yet.
Gregor and the Marks of Secret
by Suzanne Collins
Recommended Age: 12+
In this fourth book of The Underland Chronicles, Gregor and his kid sister Boots return to the underground city of Regalia to visit their mother, still recovering from the plague that had nearly wiped out every warmblooded creature in the Underland. But a birthday party leads to a secret, nighttime trip to answer a distress call from the nibblers (giant, talking mice), friends of the teenage Queen Luxa.
Their discovery of an abandoned nibbler colony, and a solitary mouse corpse, leads the young friends to sneak off on the pretext of a picnic. The picnic turns into a long, heartbreaking trek through the deepest realms of the world beneath New York City. Gregor, Luxa, Boots, and their friends experience narrow escapes, scenes of despair and horror, and a struggle for survival against the dangers of nature and the malice of the gnawers (giant, talking rats). A grim prophecy, long hidden in plain sight, is discovered in the lines of a nursery rhyme, while another prophecy hangs over Gregor’s head – one so dire that no one dares tell him what it says.
Gregor finds himself pulled in so many directions. He is torn between sheltering his baby sister from the reality of death and teaching her to understand that which increasingly surrounds her. He is torn between chafing against Luxa’s imperiousness and the first stirrings of young love between them. He is torn between his personal conviction that bloodshed and violence are wrong, and his destiny as a rager-warrior who, when he loses himself in the heat of battle, seems to enjoy fighting and killing.
The ending of this book dovetails with the opening of the fifth and last installment, Gregor and the Code of Claw. It leaves Gregor girding himself for a climactic war that he would a thousand times rather avoid, a war into which an unknown yet terrible fate propels him. And though this penultimate book leaves you in suspense as to what happens next, it leaves no illusions of this series being merely the “dark, modern version of Alice in Wonderland” it at first seemed to be. We do not know, yet, whether Gregor will become a grisly doomsday-machine in sneakers or a heroic voice of peace and healing. We do not know whether the Regalians, Luxa, or even Gregor himself will survive. We only know that a powerfully imagined fantasy world is about to reach its final crisis...and we wouldn’t miss it for anything!