The Underland Chronicles consists of five "Gregor" books. They each tell a story, but are really part of the larger whole. Because of this, I'm providing a brief synopses of each book with some thoughts on that particular installment. These will be followed by some final thoughts on the series.
Gregor the Overlander
In this first of The Underland Chronicles, we meet a hero who goes on a quest. The hero is 11-year old Gregor. Gregor is unable to go to summer camp because his parents can not afford to send both he and his 7-year old sister. Instead, Gregor stays home in order to watch his 2-year old sister and his elderly grandmother while his mother is at work. Gregor's father disappeared mysteriously several years earlier and so many duties have fallen to him in his father's absence. Gregor notices that his 2-year old sister, Boots, has disappeared while he is doing the family's laundry in the basement of his apartment building. It turns out that she has fallen down a hidden air chute and Gregor must go after her. Gregor and Boots find themselves in an underland below New York City that is populated by giant talking cockroaches (crawlers), rats (gnawers), bats, spinners (spiders) and other creatures as well as a pale violet-eyed population of humans. The two children are taken by the roaches to the human queen. It is all very reminiscent of Alice falling down the rabbit hole and finding herself in Wonderland. While in the Underland, Gregor learns that he is part of a prophecy and must lead a quest to save the Underland kingdom as well as his own father.
Thoughts on Book 1:
Book 1 of The Underland Chronicles has Gregor maturing as he takes upon his childs shoulders a very adult burden that will require great courage and sacrifice. In this book we are introduced to many recurring characters and begin to see friendships, alliances, and loyalties develop.
Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane
Book one in The Underland Chronicles left us with a clear indication that the story would continue, and continue it does in Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane. Gregor and Boots once again find themselves in the Underland. This time, Boots has been kidnapped from the Overland by the rats and Gregor must go after her. He is reunited in the Underland city of Regalia with the young Queen Luxa and her grandfather Vikus. Vikus tells Gregor of the Prophecy of Bane in which it is foretold that Gregor will fight an ominous and monstrous white rat. Gregor is off on another quest, this time with his giant bat Ares. He must fulfill the prophecy in order to once again save the Underland.
Thoughts on Book 2:
In this second book, we continue to see Gregor mature as he faces danger, death, loss, and change. Trust is a key theme in this installment. Other characters are more fully developed in Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane providing depth and bringing emotional impact to the storyline.
Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods
The Underland saga continues in Book 3 as Gregor trys to save this world beneath New York City from a plague that affects all warm blooded creatures. This quest takes Gregor and his companions to a carnivorous forest to find the cure. A prophecy is again the guide for the quest, and as in many prophecies the true meaning is not clear until the end. Gregor continues to mature and we more clearly see him on the borderline between childhood and manhood in this volume. Gregor's mother will not allow him to go back to the Underland unless she goes along. This presents a conundrum for Gregor as he tries to fulfill his duty as the Underland's warrior/savior and his Overland role as pre-teen son to a mother who worries.
Thoughts on Book 3:
In this volume of the series there is much loss and grief. Several characters must learn how to continue on while holding those they have lost close in their hearts and memories. The theme of change is prominent in this book. Collins continues to develop her characters, both human and creature, so that the reader feels a real bond and empathy with them.
Gregor and the Marks of Secret
The fourth installment finds Gregor and Boots making regular trips to the Underland to visit their mother who is continuing to recover from injuries suffered in Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods. Gregor undergoes further training as he practices wielding a sword and attempts to learn the skill of echolocation. Gregor has previously discovered that he is a rager and that this transforms him into a very focused and skillful fighter, but his inability to see in the dark is a great limitation. It does not matter how skilled he is with a sword if he can not see his opponents. Ripred the rat has become a friend and mentor to Gregor and he takes it upon himself to teach Gregor the skill of echolocation. Ripred is sorely disappointed as he tries to teach this human a skill that he may never learn.
While Gregor trains, Queen Luxa becomes aware that the nibblers (mice) in the Underland are disappearing. Luxa credits the nibblers with previously saving her life and so she is determined to find out who or what is at the bottom of this sinister disappearance. Luxa and Gregor go on a fact finding mission and are appalled at what is revealed. It is on this mission that the way is paved for the last and final prophecy that Gregor must fulfill.
Thoughts on Book 4:
Themes of tyranny and genocide, friendship and love, loyalty and honesty are prominent in this volume. The tension is quite high as the author sets up the reader for the last of The Underland Chronicles.
Gregor and the Code of Claw
The Prophecy of Time is the final prophecy that Gregor must fulfill. The residents of the Underland have taken great pains to hide this prophecy from him and this has led Gregor to understand that it must say something terrible. The prophecy calls for "the warrior's death" and so it is with great courage and heaviness that Gregor embarks on this last of his missions. As the entire Underland finds itself in a massive war and facing a terrible evil, a mysterious new princess arrives to crack the code that the enemy is using to send messages. Great hope is placed in the ability of this princess to crack the code and help turn the tide of the war. Throughout this installment Gregor finds himself contending with his unfolding darker nature as he tries to get his family safley back home and fight a war-to-end-all-wars.
Thoughts on Book 5:
The final book in The Underland Chronicles is very dark, but Collins does not leave the reader without relief. There are delightful moments of tenderness and hilarity to help offset the heavier themes of this book. Ripred's sarcasm provides some much needed chuckles as does the ability of the now 3-year old Boots to turn every place she goes into a playground. It is also here, in the midst of darkness, that we learn about Ripred's past and come to love the crotchety and sarcastic rat.
Gregor and the Code of Claw draws upon some pretty heavy themes. The nature of war, the truly horrific capacity that one person or people group has to commit atrocities against another, and the place of compromise in relationships both personal and corporate. Also explored is the question of fate and whether or not we are destined to a predetermined course of action or if we are free to choose our own paths. This very important idea is looked at in the context of the prophecies.
Some Final Thoughts
I found this series to be both exciting and emotional. There is plenty of action while not neglecting character development and relationships. It is not difficult to see why I like Gregor and his very charming 2-year old sister Boots, but how did the author make me like and feel empathy for a giant rat, cockroach, and bat?? Ms. Collins gave these creatures (that often leave us squeamish) such poignant and familiar human characteristics that it was inevitable. Ripred is a curmudgeon who hides a deep seated hurt behind his sarcasm and gruffness. He is a very loyal friend though it is not apparent from his surface demeanor. Temp is a cockroach who is, even in the Underland, despised and demeaned by the other "races." He is an underdog who shows great persistence, courage and loyalty despite what others think or expect. Ares, the bat, has a great sense of honor, loyalty and faithfulness. His actions are misunderstood and he is shunned by both bats and humans, yet he continues to live by his noble characteristics. Yes ... this is how the author made me come to love these characters and take them seriously. She made me relate to their loss and grief; their sense of honor, loyalty, faithfulness, courage and self-sacrifice. We know these characters in our own lives.
The Underland Chronicles deals with issues of real and terrible loss. Handled by a less skilllful author these could horrify the reader, but instead Collins uses them to make us care about her characters in a way that is almost unbearable at times. She inserts moments of comic respite and moments of tenderness and joy so expertly that you are able to carry on just when you think it is too burdensome. It is very much like life.
The books in The Underland Chronicles are written for readers in grades 4 through 9 (I've seen the range go up to grade 12), but they will also appeal to many adults. This series is rich in thematic material that gets you thinking. It truly is a read that can be enjoyed and appreciated by almost anyone.
Rating for the series: 5 out of 5
Note to other reviewers: I would be delighted to add a link to your review if you have reviewed any of the books in this series. Please leave a permanent link to your review in the comments and I will include it as a part of this post.