Goodreads: Gregor the Overlander
Series: Underland Chronicles #1
Eleven-year-old Gregor expects to have little fun over summer break. His father disappeared years ago and his mother, though she works hard, cannot afford to send him to summer camp. Instead, he has to stay home to care for his grandmother and his baby sister Boots. The two find adventure, however, when they fall through a grate in the laundry room into the Underland, where humans live uneasily alongside giant roaches, rats, bats, and spiders. The humans believe Gregor to be the warrior named in an ancient prophecy, one who can either destroy their world or save it, and they look to him for answers as their society heads ever closer to war. Gregor initially wants nothing more than to return his sister safely home, but soon realizes that playing alone with the prophecy may be the only way to discover the truth about his father.
At first glance, Gregor the Overlander might seem indistinguishable from many other middle grade fantasies. It contains a quest, a prophecy (rhyming, of course), and a motley assortment of characters to help the hero on his way. The characters include the required wise old mentor, the rebellious and feisty princess, and the battle-scarred warrior. Collins, however, does not incorporate these stock pieces merely to appeal to fans of the genre. She integrates them seamlessly into the story, making them feel new even as she uses them both to meet and defy the expectations of the readers.
Though marketed toward children, Gregor the Overland deals with heavy themes. It addresses war, prejudice, broken families, and the nature of trust and friendship. The readers themselves participate in the exploration and discovery of some of these issues, as they have to overcome their own aversion to the creatures of the Underland and learn to see the bravery and the goodness in some of the most repulsive characters. Some readers may also recognize themselves in Gregor, who manfully struggles to accept the loss of his father and to support his mother, even though he cannot always help comparing his life to the lives of other children. Collins deals with all these issues subtly and sensitively, never moralizing and never shrinking away from portraying the world as she sees it, intermingled with both the good and the bad.
The characterization in the book testifies to Collins’s dedication to portraying life even where other authors have strayed for artistic or emotional purposes. Most notable is her depiction of the two-year-old Boots who acts very much like her age. Though she can be friendly and charming, she also cries, throws tantrums, and annoys other people by repeatedly singing the same song. She creates messes and needs diaper changes. Arguably Boots does function largely as a catalyst for certain moments in the plot, but her personality is still memorable and she stands out as a real character, rather than a precocious baby present only to be admired and cuddled.
Not all the characters receive the same amount of attention and development, and sometimes it seems they tend toward stereotypes. The majority of them, however, have more to them than may at first appear. Men of business prove to have a deep love of family, quiet characters show surprising depth, and hardened warriors harbor secret dreams. Readers find that even cockroaches can gain their sympathy and affection.
With its unique, urban take on the traditional quest, Gregor the Overlander stands out as an imaginative, plot-driven book that still finds time to explore the growth of characters and address themes of enduring importance. Collins has created a rich, multi-faceted world of which she has only scratched the surface. Readers will find themselves reaching for the sequels as soon as they finish the first book.