Suzanne Collins' newer series is the biggest buzz book of the YA book world right now (at least as far as I can tell) but in a rare show of fiscal prudence, I didn't rush right out to buy it. Instead I decided to settle in with the first book in her Overlander series, which we conveniently enough already owned. It is fascinating to me that I will accept fantasy in children's books but shy away from it in adult books. There must be some bit of charm or magic that loses its potency for me when making the leap from kid to adult writing. And while charming and magical are perhaps not the best words to describe this particular book, I was happily engrossed in Gregor's world for the better part of a couple of hours and hope I can convince one of my fledgling readers ("No, I don't like to read," says one child who then has to be told to put the book down and finish dinner so the rest of us can escape the table and go about our evenings) to read it because I think they'd like it, not that they'd ever admit it to me.
Gregor is minding his two year old sister Boots when she falls through a grate behind a dryer in their apartment building. Of course he has to follow her but instead of an air duct, they find themselves falling down a long way into the Underland. Discovered by giant cockroaches, they are taken to the humans where they learn a bit about the world into which they've fallen. This is a world where there exists an uneasy detente between giant spiders, bats, roaches, rats, and humans. But Gregor and Boots' advent, long prophesied, will lead to all out war. Gregor wants no part of the Underland until he learns that there is a possibility that his father, missing for more than two years now, might be alive and trapped somewhere in the Underland. And with that knowledge, Gregor will lead the quest that holds the fate of all the creatures in the land. There is adventure, morality, and entertainment galore in this middle grades book.
Gregor is well drawn as a conflicted kid who wants to escape to save his mother the heartbreak of another disappearance but who wants to charge to the rescue of his beloved father, if the rumors of his capture and survival are true. He is a lucky and thoughtful boy, both traits which will come in handy on his quest and he is loyal beyond all accounting. None of the characters are drawn as unquestioned heros, with all of them having flaws and weaknesses. They are recognizable as kids first and foremost and as warriors on a quest secondarily. In addition to good, complex characters, the book offers some moral commentary on the nature of war but it is done so well and so subtlely that it won't bore the reader, instead inspiring thoughts about when and why war might be justified and when and why is isn't. Some readers probably won't pick up on the subtext, choosing to read this purely as an adventure story but the more sophisticated will at least notice the undertones.
If the much raved about Hunger Games is as subtle and interesting as this book for the younger set is, it is probably a very worthwhile read.