Back to the Underland
Last month, I blogged about how much I loved Suzanne Collins‘ Underland Chronicles after I read the first three books right before Mockingjay was released. I must confess the series took me by surprise; way before I discovered the Hunger Games series, I’d been seeing the Underland Chronicles in the bookstores and never really thought of picking them up. Then I managed to forage two books out of the bargain bins, and when I finally decided to read them, I found them utterly engrossing!
I read straight on from books 1-3: Gregor the Overlander, Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane, and Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods. I had trouble finding copies of the next books in the series, Gregor and the Marks of Secret and Gregor and the Code of the Claw so I momentarily had to stop reading the series, but some wonderful friends at Scholastic (yay, thanks Ms. Joyce and Ms. Roselle!) gifted me with books 4 and 5, and as soon as the craziness of the past couple of weeks subsided, I happily dug into the remainder of the Underland Chronicles.
Gregor and the Marks of Secret begins auspiciously, much like the other books in the series. Gregor is in New York, pretty much still the head of the household as his dad is having relapses of the illness he picked up in the Underland, his grandmother is getting more frail, and his mom is still in the Underland recovering from the deadly plague. Gregor has just managed to send off his reluctant sister Lizzie to summer camp, when he and his baby sister Boots find themselves once again in the Underland, as what was meant to be a brief visit turns into another quest entwined with a prophecy. The nibblers (mice), to whom Luxa owes her life, have been driven out of their lands, and Luxa enlists Gregor to help her get to the bottom of the crisis. The story progresses to a cliffhanger ending, with Gregor at the cusp of facing his fate, as written in yet another prophecy of the Underland.
In Gregor and the Code of the Claw, the war between the gnawers (rats) and the humans comes to the fore, guaranteeing death for all creatures — human, rat, bat, mouse, cockroach, spider, and other dwellers of the Underland — who get caught in the crossfire. Gregor faces the greatest challenge of his life: the choice between fleeing with his family to safety in New York and forgetting everything — and everyone — he holds dear in the Underland; or squaring up to the prophecy and saving the Underland from ruin, even if it could possibly cost him his life.
The last two books of the Underland Chronicles make up an epic adventure that’s even more grotesquely thrilling than the first three books in the series; you can’t read book 4 without reading book 5 subsequently.
Here’s a trailer for the series, if you’re not familiar with it yet:
Collins has the talent for creating sympathetic characters that the readers come to love and remember long after the book has been closed. I’ve read few series with characters as memorable as the Underland Chronicles.
Gregor’s self-conscious vulnerability is a refreshing change from the obnoxious adolescents that seem to populate books for young readers. He’s shy and awkward, and all of the Underland knows that his greatest weakness is the people he holds dear. Then there’s the princess Luxa, sharp of tongue and headstrong, yet fiercely loyal and valiant; Mareth, the fallen soldier, a man of few words but outstanding in skill and discipline; Solovet, the head of the military, smart as a whip but equally cunning; her husband Vikus, her polar opposite, diplomatic at every turn. Baby Boots, however, steals the show with her disarming cuteness, providing comic relief throughout throughout the series.
It’s the various (giant) species that make the series interesting, however, each with their own traits shaped by the history of the Underland. The bats are loyal to the humans they bond with, the gnawers (rats) are naturally cunning, the nibblers (mice) are math geeks, the crawlers (cockroaches) are the picture of patience, and the spinners (spiders) are ambivalent. And for For someone who is not at all fond of the whole talking animals bit, I didn’t even notice the fact until I finished the whole series!
Like the Hunger Games trilogy, the Underland Chronicles centers on war and how it affects young people, evident in the various effects that war has wrought on the characters in the series: Gregor an adolescent thrust unexpectedly into the role of warrior; Luxa a princess who must lead her people before she has even come of age to rule, Ripred a hardened fighter rejected by his own species, Hamnet a young man broken by his military upbringing, and countless of youngsters of the different species orphaned by the conflicts in the Underland. Collins even incorporates some of the horrors of the Holocaust into the story, underscoring how easily people can find certain methods of war acceptable.
It’s a theme that’s clearly important to Collins, and she’s careful not to glamorize it. Gregor’s personal conflict towards his role in the war of the Underland, and his constant reflections on the effects of war on innocent lives, are hard-hitting and in turn inspire much thought from the reader Her parting shot was quite moving for me:
Gregor sat on a bench. He had walked a lot today and all of his injuries were hurting. Seeing the news had made him think. He was safe for the moment, here in the playground, but people all over the world were suffering, starving, fleeing, killing one another as they waged their wars. How much energy they put into harming one another. How little into saving. Would it ever change? What would it take to make it change? He thought of Luxa’s hand pressed into Ripred’s paw. That’s what it would take. People rejecting war. Not one or two, but all of them. Sayiing it was an unnaceptable way to solve their differences. By the look of things the human race had a lot of evolving to do before that happened. Maybe it was impossible. But maybe it wasn’t. Like Vikus said, nothing happens unless you hope it could. If you had hope, maybe you could find the way to make things change. Because if you thought about it, there were so many reasons to try.
The Underland Chronicles is a truly memorable series for me, and I was sad to see it end. It’s well-written and deeply satisfying, although I do wish there was a postscript to the series, or maybe a second Underland series in the future. I do hope Suzanne Collins keeps on writing, and I do hope she makes the Philippines a stop on her book tours — I would so be the first in line!!!
Gregor and the Marks of Secret, paperback 4/5 stars
Gregor and the Code of Claw, paperback 4/5 stars
The Underland Chronicles series rating, 4/5 stars
Books #113-114 of 2010