Sunday, October 30, 2011

Gregor the Overlander (Suzanne Collins)

Gregor the Overlander
(The Underland Chronicles, Book 1)
Suzanne Collins
Fiction, YA Fiction
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Two years, seven months, and thirteen days ago, Gregor's father disappeared without a trace. In New York City, people vanish all the time, for all sorts of reasons. Some of them fall in with the wrong crowd, or simply don't want to be found. Gregor knows that's not the case. His dad would never leave him, his sisters, his mother, or his grandmother. Sure, they weren't exactly living in a Park Avenue penthouse, but he loved Gregor, and Gregor loved him. As soon as Dad comes home, he'll...
But Gregor won't let himself think about that, won't let himself think of hope or happiness, for fear of jinxing his father's return. In the meantime, all he can do is help out as best he can around the house. With Grandma's senility, Mom struggling to stretch one income over so many mouths to feed, and his two-year-old sister Boots' constant need for supervision and diaper changes, there's more than enough to do to keep his mind occupied. Even doing laundry is a blessing. At least, until Boots worked loose the latch on the grate in the laundry room. As Gregor races to keep her out of the walls, the two fall in... and down.
Suddenly, Gregor and Boots find themselves in a strange, dark world, where giant cockroaches, spiders, rats, and more live in an uneasy truce with humans and bats. The people of the Underland have many prophecies left by their long-lost progenitor - prophecies that may concern Gregor himself. Gregor only wants to return home, where his mother must be frantic... until he learns that he isn't the first human to tumble into the Underland. The last "Overlander" to survive the plunge came through precisely two years, seven months, and thirteen days ago.
Gregor's father. Still alive.

REVIEW: Gregor the Overlander mixes some nicely original "otherland" twists with a strangely bland story. The title character tends to think in obvious blocks of text (annoyingly set off in quote marks), holding the reader's hand as though not trusting them to follow the tale through its darker stretches. As with many "otherland" tales, Gregor's New York City street smarts and ability to comprehend slang terminology gives him an edge on the Underlanders, though they prove quite adept at surviving in their own harsh world, with a matter-of-fact survival instinct that perpetually eludes him. Gregor's adventures in the Underland start out fairly benign, as he is protected from the brutality of Underland survival by having the good fortune to travel with people who do the hard work for him. The fact that he's named in a prophecy only heightens his security. Even when death and destruction come crashing down upon him, I felt oddly detached from the action, with only an occasional emotional connection breaking through. I can't say precisely why; maybe it was the writing style, or the way Gregor tended to explain his thoughts and emotions instead of feeling them. Boots, his traveling companion, actually has a purpose on the journey, though I do rather wish Collins had aged her a few years: I've never been particularly fond of pushy toddlers. (I'm also not entirely sure that Boots wasn't the reason for my sense of detachment - Gregor spends so much energy protecting her from the hard edges of the Underland that his own experiences seemed equally bubble-wrapped for most of the story.) The author gets marks, however, for using a tantrum as a sonic weapon, perhaps the most unique use of a two-year-old I've ever encountered. Collins also establishes different morality codes for the different species of Underland; one of Gregor's great struggles is how he must come to accept that not everyone here thinks like a human, nor can they be expected to do so. Almost despite itself, Gregor's quest builds to a violent climax, though most of the violence occurs offscreen and is only witnessed in its aftermath. The very end teases of more adventures to come for Gregor and Boots.
In the end, while the book had its moments, I couldn't find the energy or interest to push it to a solid Good rating. I don't expect I'll follow the rest of this series.

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