Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins. Read by Paul Boehmer This was the first big book by Collins, much more famous now for The Hunger Games, which I haven’t yet read. The boy and I listened to this together. Gregor, aged 11 or 12, lives in New York City with his mother, grandmother, little sister, and baby sister, Boots, aged 2. His father disappeared a couple of years ago, leaving Gregor in charge of the family while his mother is at work. He’s serious about his responsibility, but an unbidden counter inside him keeps track of each day that his father has been gone. One day, he takes Boots down to the laundry room of their apartment building with him. While he’s busy with the washer, she explores the room. A large air vent has a loose cover – and soon Gregor is following Boots as a very strong draft pulls them down. There, two giant talking roaches take them to the humans of the Underland. This is a world of very pale-skinned, purple-eyed humans, who have been making a life in the Underland for the past 500 years, since their kingdom was founded by the Earl of Sandwich. Also in the Underland are the giant rideable bats, who form life partnerships with the humans similar to Pernese dragons, though later in life. Bats and humans together navigate their way among sometimes neutral, sometimes hostile giant cockroaches, spiders, and most dangerously, rats. All of these are human-sized or larger and can talk with humans. Gregor soon learns that he can’t just go back home, and that even if he could, his father is being held captive by the rats. One of the senior royalty of the Underland is convinced that Gregor is the Warrior foretold in a prophecy by the Earl of Sandwich. The prophecy foretells dangerous times for the Underworld, and says that a Warrior will come and ask for help with a Quest. It specifies the make-up of the party that should go on the quest and even how many of them will survive it. Although he himself doesn’t believe that he could be a Warrior, Gregor is persuaded to try to convince the Council to support him, if only because he knows he needs the help to find his father. Approval is given in large part because the rats are marching on the city in force. But the Quest will not be easy. The party includes Princess Luxa and Henry, both Underworld royalty a few years older than Gregor who look down on him; Gregor and Boots (mostly carried in a baby backpack on Gregor’s back) and Luxa and Henry’s bats. For the Quest to succeed, they must also find two Crawlers, two Spinners and one rat to join the party. Meanwhile, the rats are attacking the Underworld’s main human city. Everyone on the quest has to hope both that the quest will be successful and that the prophecy is right that completing Gregor’s quest will save the Underworld as well. Gregor especially grows as a character over the course of the story. He starts out a sympathetic character, caring so sweetly for his little sister, but must learn diplomacy and leadership along the way. It’s not exactly clear from Collins’s description, but it sounds like Gregor and his family might be African-American, which would make him a rare minority fantasy hero. Paul Boehmer’s narration, while perfectly expressive, is oddly precise – not quite British, but more carefully enunciated than standard American English and certainly nothing hinting at a regional or ethnic American accent. This is an exciting story with strong characters and a well-drawn setting. I should perhaps note that there isn’t any magic; the fantasy part seems to end with the existence of the Underworld and its giant inhabitants. I’m not sure it’s one of my forever-favorites, but I’d certainly recommend it to kids looking for an exciting series where it’s up to the kids to save the world.
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