I love Suzanne Collins' Gregor the Overlander books. You can read my review of the first two books here. I didn't review the third book (though I enjoyed it), but I've just finished the fourth, and would like to share it with you.
This is such a great series. It's about a boy named Gregor who, with various members of his family in tow, visits a hidden world located deep beneath New York. In that world, called the Underland, there live oversized, intelligent races of rats, mice, cockroaches, spiders, bats, and other creatures, all co-existing, and sometimes fighting one another. There is also a race of humans, who live in a city called Regalia. On his first visit, Gregor learns that his arrival has been prophesied, and that the people in the Underland consider him a warrior and hero. A series of daring adventures, lightened by humor, follows.
In this somewhat bleak installment, Gregor is relieved to visit the Underland and not be confronted with a prophecy. However, his friend, the 12-year-old Queen Luxa, pulls him into a mission anyway. Luxa has learned that the mice, who once saved her life, are in trouble. She sets out, with various others, on a dangerous quest to help the mice, a quest that may lead Regalia into war.
My favorite characters in this series, and in this book specifically, are Boots, Gregor's three-year-old sister, and Ripred, an older, battle-scarred rat who trains Gregor to fight. Boots is a natural ambassador, curious about everything and everyone she meets. Here's a brief example:
A few minutes later, after some negotiation and assurances that they were too little to sting, Boots was sitting on the mother scorpion's back cooing to the babies as she patted their shells. Gregor guessed he shouldn't be surprised when he remembered how readily she'd taken to the cockroaches. And they were full-grown" (pg. 230).
It's quite clear that the author has personal experience with three-year-old girls. Gregor's love for and protectiveness of his sister also feel real.
Ripred is a more complex character, a mix of mentor and antagonist. But I enjoy his wry tone. Here's an example, speaking to Luxa:
"Did you indeed?" said Ripred. "It seems like only yesterday you were a baby bouncing on your grandpa's knee. And now you're starting wars. They grow up so fast." (pg. 249).
The other thing, besides Boots and Ripred, that lightens this relatively dark episode in Gregor's history is the growing relationship between Luxa and Gregor. They can't really be together. They are from different worlds, and she's a Queen. Not to mention their head-butting and arguments. But still... There's something there, subtle but intriguing.
And we really need that lighter side in this book. I'll not put in any details, but you should know that the plight of the mice ends up being a pretty much a genocide. There is surprisingly grim detail for a children's book. There are strong Holocaust parallels, though their treatment isn't heavy-handed - you have to recognize the parallels for yourself, pretty much, and not all kids will understand. The most direct statement is when one of the bats says that there's no precedent for such a thing to occur, and Ripred says "This has too much precedent." As of course, it does.
I should also warn you that this book ends with a major cliffhanger. I believe that Book 5 is scheduled to end the series, and that everything will be resolved. But you might want to wait until Book 5 (Gregor and the Code of the Claw) comes out May 1st, and read them episodes 4 and 5 back to back. Just a thought.
In conclusion, this is an absolutely wonderful series for kids who are interested in epic quest fantasy but are not quite ready for The Lord of the Rings books. It's a story that will pull in reluctant readers, and keep them reading. In Gregor and the Marks of Secret, Suzanne Collins ups the ante in terms of both societal and personal issues, while retaining the quirky charm of the the previous books. Highly recommended.
Book: Gregor and the Marks of Secret (Underland Chronicles, Volume 4)
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Original Publication Date: May 1, 2006
Age Range: 9-12
Source of Book: Santa Clara City Library
Other Blog Reviews: Rave Reviews Log, Fairrosa's Reading Journal, Kids Lit (Tasha named it a best book of 2006, and called it a "must read")
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.