Gregor the Overlander
The cover of the boxed set edition.
|Cover artist||Daniel Craig|
|Series||The Underland Chronicles|
|September 1, 2003|
|Followed by||Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane|
Gregor the Overlander is a children's novel by Suzanne Collins containing elements of high fantasy. It was published in 2003, and is the first book of The Underland Chronicles. It was received well by critics, and was listed as one of New York Public Library's 100 Books for Reading and Sharing. It was featured by the U.S. National Public Radio in 2005. Scholastic has rated the book's "grade level equivalent" as 4.9 and the book's lexile score as 630L, making it reading-level-appropriate for the average fourth or fifth grader.
Eleven-year-old Gregor is left home alone in his family's New York City apartment to watch his sisters and grandmother. When Gregor's baby sister Boots falls through an old air duct grate in the building's basement, he dives in after her. The two fall miles below into the Underland: a subterranean world home to humans with near-translucent skin; giant sentient bats, rodents, and insects; and an escalating conflict between the human city of Regalia and the rats' King Gorger. They meet several "Underlanders", among them the Regalians' crown princess Luxa, her cousin Henry, and the bats who are "bonded" to them. At first Gregor wants only to return home, but when he is attacked by two rats during an escape attempt and saved by the Underlanders, he inadvertently brings the conflict between the two groups to a head.
It is then that he learns the real reason for the rats' hatred of Overlanders: a mysterious prophecy written by the human colony's founder Bartholomew of Sandwich hints that an Overland "warrior" will stop an attempt by the rats to take over the underground realm once and for all. The Regalian council believes Gregor to be this warrior, and tries to convince him to undertake the quest mentioned in the "Prophecy of Gray". Though he sympathizes, Gregor is reluctant to help until he learns a surprising fact: his father, who disappeared unexpectedly over two years before, had actually fallen down into Regalia just like Gregor and Boots and been taken prisoner by the rats. Gregor, his sister, and a group of Regalians go on a journey to rescue Gregor's father and recruit allies for a war against the rats.
The quest group struggles but successfully recruits allies for the Regalians, and then journeys to find Gregor's dad emaciated and tortured in the personal prison of King Gorger. The rat king discovers their rescue attempt and Henry reveals that he has been helping the rats all along, hoping to ally them with the Regalians and conquer the entire Underland. During the quest group's attempt to escape, Gregor sacrifices himself to lure the rats' attack force—King Gorger and Henry among them—off the edge of a cliff. Henry's bat Ares, who had no knowledge of his bond's treachery, chooses to save Gregor rather than Henry as they fall. When the few remaining quest members make it back to Regalia Luxa and her family are devastated, in part because of Henry's treason and death, and also because Ares is sentenced to banishment (essentially a death sentence in the dangerous world below) for allowing his bond to die. Gregor saves his life by using his status as the "warrior" to bond with him. When things have settled down somewhat and the Regalian doctors have done all they can for his father, Gregor and his family return to the surface.
The Prophecy of Gray
Beware, Underlanders, time hangs by a thread
The hunters are hunted, white water runs red.
The gnawers will strike to extinguish the rest.
The hope of the hopeless resides in a quest.
An Overlander warrior, a son of the sun,
May bring us back light, he may bring us back none.
But gather your neighbors and follow his call
Or rats will most surely devour us all.
Two over, two under, of royal descent,
Two fliers, two crawlers, two spinners assent.
One gnawer beside and one lost up ahead.
And eight will be left when we count up the dead.
The last who will die must decide where he stands.
The fate of the eight is contained in his hands.
So bid him take care, bid him look where he leaps,
As life may be death, and death life again reaps.
The prophecy may be "translated" as follows:
First stanza: The usual uneasy balance of power in the Underland is in flux, with the rats' king planning to launch an attack against the other species in the Underland. The phrase "white water runs red" refers specifically to how the humans deposit the bodies of two rats who try to kill Gregor into a fast-flowing river beneath the Regalian palace. "Hope of the hopeless" may be interpreted as a reference to Gregor, who refuses to "allow himself to think about the future at all", because it makes him sad that he has lost his father.
Second stanza: Gregor is an Overlander and the son of another fallen Overlander (thus a "son" of the "sun" in more ways than one). He brings the Regalians "light" (an Underland idiom for "life") by killing King Gorger and the traitor Henry. The humans ally themselves with the other species of their world, warding off an attack by the rats, who are carnivores and occasionally cannibalistic.
Third stanza: Gregor and Boots; Luxa and Henry; the bats Ares and Aurora; two giant cockroaches named Temp and Tick; the spiders Gox and Treflex; and the rat Ripred all journey on a quest to find the "one lost up ahead": Gregor's dad. Out of the original twelve, Tick, Treflex, Gox, and Henry all die during the quest.
Fourth stanza: Henry, the last "quester" to die, decides that he is a traitor to the humans, and seals his fate by failing to notice as Gregor leads him off a cliff. He may be interpreted as controlling the "fate of the eight" because of his powerful connection with the rats, whom he could have manipulated if he lived. The final line may have many different meanings; among them may be a hint about how miserable Luxa is even though she lives, as Henry was her best friend until he had his life "reaped".
- Gregor: An ordinary eleven-year-old boy from New York City, said to be the warrior mentioned in "The Prophecy of Gray". He is later bonded to Ares the flier.
- Boots (Margaret): Boots is Gregor's two-year-old sister. She accidentally discovers the entrance to the Underland. She befriends the crawlers immediately, and is the only reason the crawlers decided to come on the quest.
- Luxa: The future queen of the Underland, about the same age as Gregor. Her parents were killed by rats shortly after Henry's. She is bonded to Aurora the flier.
- Henry: Luxa's cousin, next in line to the throne after her. He wants to ally with the rats to conquer the "weak" species of the Underland. He dies chasing Gregor off the edge of a cliff, believing his bond Ares would always come catch him.
- Ripred: A gnawer (rat) with deadly fighting skills and intelligence; Vikus asks him to help the quest group into the rats' domain.
- Temp: One of two crawlers (cockroaches) to join the quest. He is one of the first crawlers who encounters Boots and her brother, and befriends the two.
- Tick: A friend of Temp who sacrifices herself to save Boots from a group of rats.
- Ares: A large black flier (bat) bonded to Henry who chooses to save Gregor rather than his bond when the two fall off a cliff. He does not know of Henry's treachery until after the fact, and so Gregor decides to bond with him to save him from banishment.
- Aurora: A flier who is bonded to Luxa. She has a golden coat.
- Gox and Treflex: Two spinners (spiders) who help the quest group.
- Gregor's dad: Though never named, Gregor's father is an important member of the quest because it is he the group goes to find and rescue.
Gregor the Overlander has received much critical acclaim, primarily for its new treatment of a common themes in fantasy. School Library Journal called it "an engrossing adventure for fantasy fans and for those new to the genre." Common Sense Media gave it a 5/5 and credited the book's "strong characters, vivid descriptions, flawless pacing, breathless excitement, laughs and scares, and a vision that makes this fantasy very different." Readers have also praised the novel; Jane LeGak, an Amazon Reviewer, stated that, "Rats and other wonderfully creepy creatures fill the story's dark underworld, but what makes this book so wonderful is how human it is." A. Reid, also from Amazon.com, praised the believable characters, saying, "Gregor is one of the most warmly believable characters I've encountered in a children's novel in a long time." As of August 2015, users on Amazon.com had given the book a rating of 4.5 stars out of 5, and Barnes & Noble reviews awarded it a total of 4.4 stars.
The book has also been praised for covering political themes, such as war and genocide, while still maintaining an adventurous feeling. Collins herself has stated that "she spent hours ... plotting strategic alliances that would make military sense" in a way that kept such themes accessible for younger audiences. Publishers Weekly's review of the novel was "starred", an honor reserved for books of "exceptional merit". The reviewer stated, "Collins does a grand job of world-building, with a fine economy of words-no unnecessary details bog down either the setting or the invigorating story. In her world, a child singing "Patty-Cake" can change the course of history and a stoic rat can mourn the fact that although he is able to read, he cannot write because he has no thumb. Unlike Gregor who cannot wait to leave, readers will likely find it to be a fantastically engaging place."
Despite the mainly positive reviews, the novel has received some negative criticism. One critical review by Children's Literature writer Tina Gregory points out that "the novel lacks at certain points necessary descriptive details of the characters and settings. For instance, the descriptions of Regalia, the Underland city, and many of the book's characters should be so distinct that we visualize them." The same School Library Journal review which praised the novel's "exciting scenes and cliff-hanger chapters" also had this to say: "Gregor is not the most compelling figure at first, but as the story progresses he becomes more interesting, maturing through the challenges he faces."
Gregor the Overlander was named a Kirkus Reviews Editors' Choice and placed third for the Nutmeg Children's Book Award in 2006 in the intermediate category. It was also nominated for the Kansas William Allen White Children's Book Award, the Pacific Northwest Young Reader's Choice Award, and several other awards. It won the Pennsylvania Young Readers' Choice Award for 2005–2006 and was the first runner-up for the Texas Bluebonnet Award.
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