I’ve been making an effort recently to read some of the hundreds of unread books I own. And because I reasoned that it’d be easier to read through the stuff for younger readers first instead of tackling, like, Crime and Punishment, I decided to pick up the first book in Suzanne Collins’s Gregor the Overlander series. (Yes, The Hunger Games’s Suzanne Collins wrote a lighthearted middle grade fantasy. I was surprised, too.)
Gregor the Overlander is both the series’s name, the first book in said series, and the main character thereof—although when the story starts, Gregor has no idea what an Overlander is. He’s too busy being frustrated that his mom kept him home from summer camp to watch his baby sister while everyone else in his neighborhood got to go. In time-honored fantasy tradition, two-year-old Boots (née Margaret) falls through a portal in their basement into a strange world called the Underland, and Gregor, in line with said tradition, goes after her to retrieve her.
There Gregor discovers a strange civilization populated by giant-bat-riding humans called Underlanders, as well as by giant cockroaches, spiders, and rats. Although he is suspicious of them at first, he finds out that the Underlanders believe that he is the subject of one of their most precious prophecies—a warrior who will lead an alliance of humans, bats, roaches, and spiders to overthrow the terrible rat kingdom and bring back their light. And that light isn’t figurative in this case—it turns out that Gregor’s dad, who went missing two years previous, also fell into Underland and was taken captive by the rats. With his knowledge of science, he would be able to help the Underlanders make important scientific advancements (not to mention that Gregor would be pleased to have his dad back). Despite the requisite disdain of the skilled Underlander warriors who accompany him, Gregor manages to quickly prove himself as a warrior and helps hold their team together as they make their way into the rats’ kingdom, all while also constantly changing Boots’s diapers. In the end he has to make a terrible, life-risking choice in order to save his family and friends from a turncoat within the quest’s own ranks, but everything comes up roses by the last page.
While it made for a quick read—I was finished with it in half a three-hour plane ride—I wasn’t really that impressed by it overall. I was drawn in by the author more than anything, but if The Hunger Games are compelling page-turners with interesting worldbuilding, this is their opposite. The worldbuilding was more than a little confusing to me. The Underlanders are just regular humans who have adapted over centuries to living underground. (The lack of exposure to sunlight means that they’re not just white people, they’re nearly translucent. Don’t go to this book for PoC representation.) They have built amazing structures—things that seem like they’d require magical ability—in their cavern homeland, but still fight with swords and are baffled by things like batteries and electric flashlights. But what Underland is exactly is never quite explained. Did humans get powers from moving into Underland or are they still just bog-standard homo sapiens underneath it all? Were the human-sized, talking animals there when they got there? Are they special and magical because they’re big/are from Underland? Is the implication that all animals can talk and humans just aren’t paying attention? Or do the giant roaches and regular New York City roaches have as much in common as Tinkerbell has with a dragonfly?
Its other problem is that the narrative is so meshed in archetypal fantasy structure that you can draw direct lines from each plot point to a similar one in a classic story, and it never deviates from that. Lots of things just happen because the plot or the prophecy needs them to happen for the story to progress, but that otherwise don’t make any sense. For example, the prophecy states that the quest will set out with twelve, but that four will die en route. When they reach their destination, only two have died, so a random and unimportant quester is peremptorily killed off so that there can be some tension about who the fourth will be. It’s a weird and random act of violence that isn’t given the same weight or importance as the other deaths in the group, and it feels like it just happened to meet the quota.
On top of all these problems, I just didn’t find the characters that compelling, or their conflicts that interesting. Maybe it’s my age—after all, The Hunger Games series is YA, and maybe I just connected more to the older characters and the higher stakes. But I’m not convinced that’s the case. After all, both the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books are considered upper middle grade, and I certainly didn’t have any problem getting obsessed with those characters.
There are four more books in the Gregor the Overlander series, but I think I’m satisfied having read the one. Sometimes fantasy books for young readers can surpass their age ranking and impress audiences of any age, but this is not one of those.