Author: Suzanne Collins
Published: 2003 – 2007
Pages: 336; 320; 304; 352; 416 (from Amazon data, but I think these are based on small pages with a large type-face)
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy/Adventure
Kid Friendly Rating: 9+ Swearing and sexual content is basically non-existent, but the books get progressively scarier and more violent. Click here for the Common Sense Media Guide!
Gregor is an ordinary 11-year-old boy who lives in a run-down apartment building in New York City with his mom. Gregor’s father disappeared from his life two years prior, leaving behind Gregor, his mom, and his two younger sisters, Lizzie (7), and Boots (2). As the oldest child, Gregor feels immense pressure to help his mother care for his sisters while he watches bills pile up and the family struggles to eat.
One day, while helping with laundry in the basement of the building with his baby sister Boots, Gregor observes that she is playing perilously close to an old air duct. Too late, he dives after her, and just like that, they both find themselves plummeting… but the fall lasts far longer than it should. At long last, Gregor and Boots arrive unharmed in a cave at some unknown depth. Before he can stop her, Boots sets off exploring, and she abruptly finds some very strange company. Before he can catch his breath, Gregor and Boots are caught up in the midst of a prophesy, with the fate of thousands hanging in the balance. And maybe, just maybe, the possibility of a reunion with his long lost father.
Gregor soon learns that he and Boots have landed in the Underland, a realm where cockroaches are nearly as big as humans, and rats are a great deal larger. Not to mention vicious. And they hate humans.
The Underland is home to a lost race of humans who have been underground for thousands of years. The humans have been at war with the rats on and off for generations. Upon arriving at the human kingdom, Gregor learns that the rats have a particular aversion to “Overlanders” due to an ancient prophesy predicting that one would essentially bring about the end of the rat kingdom.
When the human leaders learn that Gregor’s father had mysteriously vanished two years prior, speculation abounds that his father had been captured by rats, which means that Gregor may be “The Warrior” referenced in the prophesy who could save the human race. An expedition is launched (owing much to The Fellowship of the Ring and The Hobbit) to find Gregor’s father, fulfill the prophesy, and save the Underland human race in the process.
Joining Gregor in his quest are Luxa, the young heiress to the human throne, her cousin Henry, their two bats Aurora and Ares (who are bonded to their human partners sort of like Han and Chewie, but in an official capacity), two cockroaches named Tick and Temp, and a gigantic rogue rat named Ripred.
Unfortunately for Gregor, his adventures in the Underland do not end with one simple quest. No sooner has he found himself home than he is drawn unexpectedly into further adventures, with ever more complications, as Gregor’s friendships and stature in the Underland both develop and deepen.
While Suzanne Collins is now far better known for her popular dystopian Hunger Games series, she kicked off her published writing career with the Underland Chronicles back in 2003. This is a different type of story, but built on a framework with some obvious parallels.
Like Katniss, Gregor is constantly driven by his love for his family and his desire to protect them at all costs. Also like Katniss, Gregor’s extreme selflessness in furtherance of this goal sometimes lends him a mythical quality to those around him, even though his inward thoughts show his fear and innocence. Both characters have lost their father and felt the need to step up in his absence. Gregor is perhaps more reserved in his acceptance of violence as a means to an end. When Gregor discovers that he has a particular talent for fighting, he is sickened, literally, by the idea, and wants nothing to do with any prophesy that could refer to him as a “warrior.”
In the sarcastic and battle-toughened rat Ripred, we see perhaps an early template for Haymitch. In the cold and calculating human leader Solovet are shades of President Coin.
To me, where this series diverges sharply from Hunger Games is in world-building. Pan-Em was an almost completely abstract representation of society with its rigid lines defining zones with ultra-specific economic purposes. The Underland is not a post-apocalyptic vestige of mankind. It is a fully mature civilization existing alongside ours. While Underland areas are divided mostly by species, each species functions independently and apart from the others except for profitable trade exchanges. While the humans and rats appear perpetually at war with each other, creatures like the cockroaches spiders, and numerous others fall into something of a neutral territory. The idea of impartial observers in a global conflict is something that is generally absent in Hunger Games.
At times, Gregor’s indifference for his own well-being and efforts to help others belie his tender age and strain credulity. But, perhaps his years spent without a father have toughened him and forced him to mature far faster than an ordinary pre-teen. Again and again Gregor willingly throws himself into danger to save Boots, to help the rest of his family, and, later, to do right by his friends in the Underland. As an adult reader I could not help rolling my eyes at times when Gregor took on the aura of a superhero, and adults in the Underland willingly sent him into extreme danger for their benefit, as if no one at all is on hand to say, “Hey, isn’t this kid, you know, like 11 or 12? Maybe we should help… a little?” And yet, the earnestness with which Gregor engages in his adventures is constantly endearing, and makes this an appropriate venture for younger readers. We never lose sight of exactly why Gregor is doing what he is doing, and neither does Gregor waver from his sense of what is Right and Just in furtherance of his goals. It doesn’t make his decisions throughout seem terribly complex or weighty, but sometimes it’s nice to have a simple read, in a world of black and white.
Romance is almost completely absent in books 1-4, but it does make an appearance in book 5. Unfortunately, these passages are rushed and underdeveloped, and feel almost as if they were shoe-horned in to add some emotional stakes and provide some additional ties for Gregor to The Underland rather than his family. On the other hand, keeping in mind that Gregor is still only 12 at the conclusion of book 5, I’m not sure increasing the romance is the answer. Perhaps simply an unbreakable friendship would have worked better and developed more organically over the course of all 5 books.
Ah, well, but I am nitpicking here, because I did greatly enjoy my time with Gregor in the Underland, and I would gladly venture back if ever Collins opens the door to return. I read the series over a couple months and found it to be a fun and refreshing diversion from more serious novels. I give the series 3.5* out of 5 stars.
Have you read this series? Let me know your thoughts!
*For reference, I’d have given Hunger Games a 4.