The Underland Chronicles (all five books)

Gregor the OverlanderBy Suzanne Collins [Collins at LibraryThingCollins a Amazon]

Gregor is more or less an average kid growing up in New York City, though he does miss his father, who disappeared over two years ago…But everything changes one day when he and his toddler sister, Boots, fall down an airshaft from their building’s laundry room and land in a strange realm called the Underland, where giant creatures—cockroaches, rats, and bats, among others—can talk.

There are humans in the Underland, too, a colony that was led there by Bartholomew of Sandwich four hundred years ago. But it’s a hard life: resources are scarce, and the humans and rats are constantly at war. Gregor, of course, wants nothing to do with war or the strange civilization, but he discovers that his falling was foretold in a prophecy Sandwich wrote…and the prophecy also tells of a quest he must undertake to find his father, who has now been a prisoner of the rats for over two years.

Gregor and the Prophecy of BaneSo begins the series, which is five books long. And there’s a lot to say about it, so I’ll start with this: The Underland Chronicles are the best books I’ve read for Active Voice. Some of the best kids books I’ve read, period. I’ve read them through twice now—the first time I couldn’t put them down (I had to plan special bookstore trips into my schedule to make sure I’d have the next book by the time I finished the current one), and I splurged and bought the fifth book in hardcover, because there was no way I was going to wait for it to be out in paperback to get the conclusion of the series.

So. That said, here we go.

The Underland is a fantasy world that doesn’t really have any magic to it, except for the implication that, very rarely, someone will be born who can see the future. Sandwich was one of them, which was why he not only led his people into the Underland, but also why he wrote all the prophesies, including the ones about Gregor. The only other prophet is a minor character in the series, and her visions are frequently jumbled and nonsensical; she’s as likely to see the past as she is the future, but she can’t tell one from the other. So aside from that, no magic.

Gregor and the Curse of the WarmbloodsThe way the world is set up is that a bunch of species are all forced to live within the space of the Underland, in constant competition for its limited resources. There are frequent wars between species, and with the exception of bats and humans (who work closely together at all times), alliances are rare and shaky. In particular, the humans and rats hate each other, and have been at war for generations. In fact, the series is really about war from the get go. In prophesies, Gregor is called “The Warrior” and the series of prophesies about him also talk about a great war which may potentially destroy all the humans, all the rats, or both.

The series deals with war very well, exploring numerous aspects. The first book is the rescue of Gregor’s father, who is (not very subtly) a war prisoner; later books cover subjects ranging from weapons of mass destruction, the deaths of innocent civilians, genocide, and the question of if and how war is ever justifiable. They also deal with the idea of whether or not long-established enemies can work together—and if they can benefit from it.

All of the subjects are dealt with brilliantly, with the morals being clear and obvious while never overtaking the breathtakingly well told story or the completely three-dimensional characters. The last part—humans and rats working together—is particularly well done, because as an outsider, Gregor is the only one who has perspective on it. Luxa, the queen of the humans in the Underland, lost her parents to the rats and has a deep, almost irrational hatred of them as a result. Even when forced to work with them (Gregor has a rat ally named Ripred, a terrifyingly smart and deadly rat who is on a quest for power of his own—but whose goals overlap with Gregor’s often enough that they make better allies than enemies), she struggles with this, and is clearly willing to kill or let rats who are her allies die rather than risking even a tiny bit to help them. Gregor forcers her to confront her own racism (well, species-ism, but it’s clearly allegory for racial and religious differences) and begin to change, despite her history.

And in a later book, Ripred goes out of his way to scare Boots, so that she’ll know not to be friendly to rats—since rats would kill her out of hand. Instead, she should know to fear them. But it leaves Gregor wondering: if rats teach their young to hate and fear humans, and humans teach their young to hate and fear rats, how will it ever stop? How will they ever manage to leave the hatred behind and learn to get along, if the first thing they know as children is to hate one another?

That’s the sort of questions the books ask, and the way they illustrate the point—and the ways the questions are answered—makes for a phenomenally well-plotted and well-written story.

Gregor and the Marks of SecretSo there’s that. Next, we get amazing characters.

First, you’ve got the titular Gregor. Gregor is, in a lot of ways, a very typical hero for portal fantasy, just by virtue of being a typical kid. He’s neither popular nor an outcast: he’s just finished fifth grade, he runs track, he plays saxophone in the school band, and while he’s friendly with most people, he only has a couple of close friends. But he’s also stressed out all the time: since his father disappeared, his mother has had to work seven days a week to make ends meet and care for the family. Gregor is the oldest kid; his sister, Lizzie, is younger, prone to panic attacks, and is fond of word puzzles; his youngest sister, Boots (real name Margaret), is only two and a half (their father disappeared a few months before she was born). Their grandmother, who’s sick, frequently delirious, and spends most of her time in bed, also lives in the apartment. Since his mom is never home and his grandmother isn’t strong enough to care for them, he’s become the caretaker for both of his sisters. He has a strong sense of fair play, he knows the difference between right and wrong and wants to do what’s right for its own sake, he’s a smart kid with a strong sense of responsibility.

Those characteristics tend to make for an Everyboy Hero, which never does favors for the story. But Gregor manages to turn generic good guy traits into real character. His sense of responsibility comes from having been a caretaker of his sisters. And his sense of right and wrong is something that is share by all his siblings, for the perfectly sensible reason that that’s how he was raised. It’s a simple thing, and presumably what most writers of the Everyboy Hero assume, but it works for Gregor because we actually see it. First echoed by Boots, in a scene where a character has slapped Gregor. Boots starts crying, not because she’s afraid, but because it breaks the rules, and the most sacred rule in their household is, “No hitting.” (As the series goes on and Gregor is forced to learn swordwork and do battle, Boots is increasingly disturbed to see him fighting.) But not only does that make Gregor’s character more real, but both of his parents eventually become characters in their own right. Upon getting to know the people who raised Gregor, his character becomes more defined. And while he’s obviously a good person inherently, he’s still allowed to screw up, because he’s been raised in such a way to feel bad when he does something bad, and to try and make up for it.

For example, in the third book (Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods), he’s forced to team up on a quest with several rats—the sworn enemies of the humans. Though one of the main themes of the book is Gregor’s willingness to accept rats as individuals, instead of as a lump category of bad people, he still found his companions hard to take. At one point, he makes a very rude comment, only to realize later how offensive it truly was. He decides quickly to apologize for it, and starts to go talk to the offended rats privately, then changes his mind: he screwed up in front of everybody, so it’s only fair to apologize in front of everybody, too.

Gregor and the Code of ClawNext up is Luxa. Luxa is the Queen of the humans in Underland—though like Gregor, she’s only eleven, so she holds very little real power, as the country (Regalia) is being ruled by a council until she’s of age. At her intro, I took her for another typical character: a spunky princess who fulfils the romantic interest role. But also like Gregor, she avoids being the cliché by being much more complex and real than the archetype she springs from. Luxa starts out the series as an arrogant but excellent fighter, who’s a little too impressed with herself and disdainful of Gregor because he knows nothing of fighting, and despite the fact that she’s being trained in diplomacy, as she’s the queen, she’s also disdainful of entire species that won’t fight, such as the Underland’s cockroaches, a cautious species that flees instead of fights and has little interest in allying with either the humans or the rats.

More than anything else, Luxa hates the rats. She truly believes that in the end, only humans or rats can survive, and she says as much to Gregor. And this is perhaps one of the biggest problems presented in the book: Luxa, as queen, is the one who will ultimately have to decide between peace and war, and will obviously only be able to choose peace if she can conquer that hatred. But it’s never shown as an easy thing; as the series continues, she’s given more and more reason to hate, and very little reason not to.

And at the same time, that hatred doesn’t define her character, or prevent her from growing. As she struggles with it, she also struggles with responsibility. She has been betrayed once terribly, and learning to trust Gregor is difficult after that. She slowly learns that fighting is not always the answer and doesn’t have to be—and shouldn’t be—the default response to feeling threatened.

Luxa, in some ways more than anyone else, is a character who grows and matures. Even though she starts out pretty damn cool, if you ask me. The following is an exchange from the first book, and one of my favorite from the series overall, which takes place after Luxa has cut off her gorgeous, waist-length hair before they leave on the first quest:

“What happened to your hair?” asked Gregor, stuffing the prophesy in his pocket.

“Long locks are dangerous in battle,” said Luxa carelessly.

“That’s too bad, I mean – it looks good short, too,” said Gregor quickly.

Luxa burst out laught. “Gregor the Overlander, think you my beauty is of any matter in such times?

Gregor’s face felt hot with embarrassment. “That’s not what I meant.”

Luxa just shook her head at Henry, who was grinning back at her. “The Overlander speaks true, cousin, you look like a shorn sheep.”

“All the better,” said Luxa. “For who would attack a sheep?”

Oh, yeah. Luxa is more than willing to sacrifice beauty and femininity for practicality and safety. That, right there, is much better than a lot of female heroes ever achieve.

As I hinted at earlier, Luxa is, sort of, the romantic interest. But the thing is, she and Gregor are pre-teens. The series does a very good job of showing the way their relationship develops from one of mistrust but mutual need to one which is very close. In fact, after the ending of book two, it’s…Um…very spoilery. show

Also…Well, another spoiler, though a minor, more general one: show

Their relationship overall is one of the best I’ve read in a kids’ series, but that’s not surprising, since almost everything about the series is among the best out there. There’s only one point where their relationship doesn’t work for me, which is also my only major quibble with the books. It happens near the end of the last book, so of course it’s a spoiler, but I promise the last one I’m going to post in this section: show

That’s most of it. (Also, this review is now five pages long.) But there’s more! Especially in the fifth book—damn, is the conclusion good. I won’t even spoil-tag it, but seriously, the revelations about how the humans conquered Regalia and about Sandwich overall are pretty shocking. I called many of the earlier turns and morality questions (needless to say, the humans are not always in the right, and the rats are not always in the wrong), but that was stuff I didn’t see coming.

The series is very tightly plotted: throw away lines and minor characters from the beginning become hugely important at the end. The books set up a fatalistic world, then questions fate overall. The books aren’t afraid to kill characters—the series is about war, after all—but don’t do so lightly, and deal overall with the fallout from it. The series is gripping; the world is fantastic; the characters are developed (even the toddler, who manages to be useful and not annoying!); the concepts are solid. I have much, much more to say, but at this point, I’m just adding, “And ALSO this OTHER part is awesome! And this minor character is really awesome! And this plot twist was awesome! And this paragraph! And that page! So awesome!” So I assume you get the point. And given all this gushing, it’s no surprise that the series as a whole gets the oh-so-elusive five cupcakes.

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    7 Responses to “The Underland Chronicles (all five books)”

    1. Jessica says:

      So you’re letting me borrow these, right? I’ll let you borrow, uh…man, why are all of mine lousy?

    2. […] take on Daughters of Earth (she seems to have enjoyed it as thoroughly as I did) and an enthusiastic review of The Underland Chronicles from Active Voice’s […]

    3. […] Like Rebecca with the Gregor books, I’m a little at a loss to talk about this one aside from just saying “And also, this was awesome!” The various wacky characters were all really fun, and the book is full of the kind of passages you want to read aloud to everyone around you, much to their annoyance, like this one from the introduction to one of the minor villains: Now you shouldn’t feel sorry for him because he had never had eyes and had been born that way. And if you have never had something you can’t really miss it. Once upon a time, he had had his nose, however, and he missed that terribly. Even more than he missed his ears, and definitely more than he missed his hands. Again, though, you shouldn’t feel bad for him because though this all sounds unpleasant, and it really is, he could still hear things through the holes in the sides of his head, and he could still grab things with the elegant wooden hands designed to replace the originals. […]

    4. […] around three male characters. I will happily read and enjoy books with a male protagonist (the Gregor books were probably the best things I read all last year), but if there’s no female character […]

    5. Tara says:

      Hi,
      I read an ARC of The Hunger Games a couple months ago and was blown away by it. Looking for other people’s thoughts on the book, I found your blog and so enjoyed your description of the Underland Chronicle books, and especially the bond between Gregor and Luxa, that I got the first one (which I devoured) and then went out and bought the next four. I’m currently reading book 3 and loving it. So thanks very much for your detailed and insightful review! (I wouldn’t have tried it otherwise, because the characters are so young at the start, I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy it, as I’m 32!)

      You are definitely going to love The Hunger Games. It has a lot of similarities to the Underland world and Katniss, the heroine, is a phenomenal character. She’s real and complex and not your typical anything. My only regret in reading it so early is that it’s going to be that much harder to wait for the second one in the series.

    6. Elizabeth says:

      Wow. These books were awesome! Even though I’ve never heard of them before (which is a shame because everywhere you go you hear about Twilight and, in my opinion, these books are a LOT better than Twilight) and I probably wouldn’t have picked them up if I didn’t see that you gave them five stars.

      The plot was great and the characters were great! I loved Luxa, Gregor, Boots, Ripred and Ares ( I teared up when he died). I agree with you about the part when Gregor got Luxa locked up in the dungeon so she couldn’t fight in the big battle. That was one of the few problems I had with these books. It bothers me when the main male characters try to protect the female characters like that even though, most of the time, the female characters can kick butt!
      One of the other things that I didn’t like about these books was the way it ended. I mean it’s great and everything that Boots could finally say Gregor’s name but did they stay in New York instead of moving to Virginia? Did he ever see Luxa again? It’s not a really big deal but it bothered me a bit.

      Still, these books ROCKED SOCKS!!!!!!! And now I can’t wait to get my hands on The Hunger Games. I keep looking at it longingly when I pass it in the bookstore, wishing that I had enough money to buy it. But one day it will be mine!

    7. […] whom she forms an uneasy alliance. And, well, I would avoid using such similar plot elements to Suzanne Collins’ Gregor books unless you’re really really sure you can tackle them better than she did. (Spoiler: You can’t. […]

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