Gregor the Overlander: High quality YA fantasy

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review: Gregor the Overlander Suzanne Collins UnderlandGregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

In the sea of young adult fiction out there, Gregor the Overlander makes for one of the more pleasant anchorages. The book starts off quickly with Gregor and his two-year-old sister “Boots” falling through a gateway into the Underworld, a sprawling underground land populated by giant talking cockroaches, rats, bats, and spiders, along with several thousand pale humans descended from a 17th century “overlander” who led his small group into the Underworld then sealed the entrances. This descendant left a string of prophecies, including one which seems to point directly to Gregor as the one who may or may not save the humans in their ongoing war with the rats (as is often the case with prophecies, this one is somewhat lacking in clarity). Gregor has a more personal issue at stake; it turns out his father, who had disappeared a few years earlier, had also fallen through into the Underworld and has been held captive by the rats all this time as they seek to use his knowledge of science and engineering. Luckily, Gregor’s desire to save his father dovetails with the prophecy and soon a band of rescuers is formed and the journey begun.

Being a young adult novel, the story moves along swiftly, without a lot of detailed description of either setting or society, but if the world is only sketched out, it is done so fully enough so that the reader never feels at a loss and is done so interestingly enough that the reader often wants to learn much more than is revealed.
fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe same holds true for many of the characters — Gregor, the young human princess and her cousin from the underworld, the grandfatherly diplomat who befriends and guides Gregor, even the bats who “bond” with their human riders. Perhaps the most interesting characters are a rat whose loyalties are not quite clear and two cockroaches who join the rescue mission, the latter interesting despite their relative few words in comparison to the others. Again, aimed as it is as somewhat younger readers, the characterization comes quickly and sometimes bluntly, but there are also some fine subtleties in here and some truly moving scenes whose emotional impact is as much due to the “humanity” of the characters Suzanne Collins has created as it is to the situations she places them in. I’d even go so far as to say my favorite characters, the ones I found most compelling in speech and personality, were the non-human ones. His sister Boots is a welcome source of comic relief throughout the work, lightening the tone at times, though also used as a prop to create more tension at others.

Some scenes could and probably should be more fully detailed, but while a valid criticism, one can also take it as a compliment to Collins’ writing since it’s good enough for the reader to want more, not less. As it is, the book speeds along from Gregor’s fall to his first contact with the various species of the underworld, to his growing acceptance of his responsibilities and a gradual flowering of inner qualities as the dangers of the journey unfold. All of which sounds quite positive, but it comes in fits and starts. Collins isn’t afraid to give Gregor some unlikeable moments and also does not shy away from the darker aspects of her tale — while some people (and I use that term loosely) rise to the occasion, others sink. And some of either kind do not survive. It’s a good ending, but not necessarily a completely happy one. It’s that kind of complex shading that makes Gregor rise above much of its competition. The ending also clearly points to a sequel and in this case, I can only say good. There is a lot more for Suzanne Collins to mine here both in terms of the Underland society and these particular characters. I for one will look forward to seeing what happens to both. The Gregor series maintains and even at times improves on the high quality promised in the first book, at least through the next three. Highly recommended.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. I'm so glad you love this book. It's underrated and I feel like it deserves more attention than it gets - especially post-Hunger Games.

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