I’ll be reviewing a few chapters at a time, and not always necessarily the same number of chapters. Basically it will be as many chapters as I see fit.
This series is paced pretty quickly, but the first couple of chapters will still be a bit uninteresting to talk about because they’re mostly just setup and some backstory. So it might take some time before I have anything really substantial to talk about.
I won’t spend much time on the first chapter because not much actually happens in it, but here’s what you need to know.
- Gregor, the eleven year-old protagonist, lives with his mom, his two sisters, and his grandma in a tiny appartment in New York City. His father disappeared when he was eight.
- Gregor has to stay home while his mom is at work to look after his youngest sister, who is a toddler, and his grandma. His other sister, Lizzie, is at camp for the summer.
- His younger sister is named Margaret, but they call her Boots. That was always a little weird to me. A nickname is one thing but like, that’s all they ever call her. Is she still going to be called Boots when she’s like, sixteen?
- Boots finds a grate in the laundry room with a weird mist rising up in it. She falls in, and Gregor follows.
There we go.
Seeing as this is a children’s series, the writing itself is very straightforward and simplistic. But as I’ve mentioned, the actual story and the themes discussed in these books are anything but childish. The juxtaposition is a little odd sometimes, but after a while I got so wrapped up in the story and characters that I stopped caring about the writing itself all that much. That also happened with The Hunger Games, which if I’m being honest had very flawed writing (and didn’t even have the excuse of being for children).
Gregor and Boots fall for a long time and somehow manage to land without dying. How they were able to survive that fall is explained later, but right now there’s a more pressing matter. They’re surrounded by giant cockroaches. One of them is holding a torch, which is the only way Gregor was even able to see it. And they talk, though their way of talking is pretty confusing.
“Smells what so good, smells what?” a voice hissed, and it took Gregor a full minute to realize it had come from the cockroach.
Honestly I’m surprised Gregor isn’t, like, screaming at the top of his lungs right now because that’s definitely what I would be doing. I have a really, really terrible case of arachonophobia and a slightly less terrible case of entomophobia. So naturally, I thought it would be a great idea to read a book series with giant spiders and cockroaches! I didn’t really expect to ever like the cockroaches but to my surprise I did. I don’t want to spoil anything that happens later, but it turns out they’re all right, and they’re actually kind of cute. In case you’re wondering, no, I never grew to like the spiders.
Anyway, the cockroaches take a liking to Boots right away. They think she’s a princess. Boots seems to take a liking to them too. You’ll learn pretty quickly that Boots is like the bravest two year old ever. So the cockroaches take Boots and Gregor to what appears to be an arena where people are playing some sort of game. The players are humans riding giant bats, luckily I adore bats and am not remotely afraid of them.
Boots runs onto the field to try and get the ball that’s being played with and Gregor follows. A girl drops down from her bat to meet Boots and Gregor. Except she doesn’t just drop down, she has to “execute a perfect double back-flip, twisting around at the last moment to face Gregor’s direction, and landed on the ground as lightly as a cat in front of Boots.”
That’s some Agent Carolina shit right there.
So, this mystery girl. She’s the first Underland human that we meet, and the Underlanders have a pretty interesting appearance. They’re so pale that you can see nearly every vein in their body, their hair is so blonde it’s almost silver, and their eyes are violet. I guess lack of sun will do that to you. I actually think they sound pretty, in a sort of creepy way.
One thing I should note as we’re talking about the Underlanders’ appearance is that at no point in this series do we get a physical description of Gregor. It’s mentioned a couple of times that he’s tall for his age, and he obviously has darker skin than the Underlanders, but that’s pretty much it. No one in Gregor’s family gets that much of a description, in fact. Boots is described as having curly hair, brown eyes, and light brown skin, and that’s the most we get. It’s a little weird to not be given any idea of what the main character looks like (we also never learn his last name), but it does leave the reader free to imagine him as looking any way they want, and they can make him any race or ethnicity they want too. Personally I always imagined Gregor and his family as Latinx, but you can pretty much imagine anything you want.
Anyway, back to the girl. She’s one of the best characters in the series and I took a liking to her immediately, mostly because I was glad to know there would be at least one other female character in these books aside from Boots. But she is actually a really cool and interesting character, and my second favorite in this series. However, I suppose some may find her hard to like at first. As Gregor’s mom would put it, she’s got “real attitude”. She’s not very friendly toward Gregor and she’s pretty arrogant. And pretentious, I mean…
The girl knelt on one knee and held out the ball to Boots, but she kept her fingers wrapped tighly around it. “It is yours if you can take it,” she said in a voice like her eyes: cold, and clear, and foreign.
Boots tried to take the ball, but the girl didn’t release it. Confused, she pulled on the girl’s fingers. “Ball?”
The girl shook her head. “You will have to be stronger or smarter than I am.”
Shut up you’re like twelve.
Boots looked right up at the girl, registered something, and poked her right in the eye. “Pu-ple!” she said. The girl jerked back, dropping the ball. Boots scrambled after it and scooped it up.
Gregor couldn’t resist. “I guess she’s smarter,” he said.
Ha! Get rekt, mystery girl.
The girl narrowed her eyes. “But not you. Or you would not say such things to a queen.”
Oh shit. Get rekt, Gregor.
The girl introduces herself as Queen Luxa, and can I just say how much I love the fact that she’s a queen and not a princess? There’s this weird thing in media where female characters are called “princess” even when they should clearly be a queen, because “queen” has been given very negative conotations whereas “princess” hasn’t. Like, did you know that Lauren Faust wanted Princess Celestia from My Little Pony to be Queen Celestia originally, which would have made a lot more sense, but Hasbro made her change it? The whole “queens are bad and princesses are good” trope is really annoying and frankly sexist but that’s too long of a topic to get into right now. I’m just glad that trope wasn’t used here.
We meet another Underlander as Luxa is bartering with the cockroaches (or “crawlers”, as they’re called in the Underland) for Gregor and Boots. His name is Vikus, and he’s apparently able to override Luxa since he’s the one who finishes the exchange with the crawlers. He’s a lot more generous to them than Luxa wanted to be. He’s also very curious about Gregor, and he asks if Gregor came from New York City. So Underlanders at least know a couple of things about the Overland. Trippy.
The next couple of chapters are a bit more interesting than these, but these chapters at least get the ball rolling. I remember being surprised but appreciative the first time I read this book that things seemed to move so quickly. Somehow I didn’t really expect to already get to the Underland by chapter 2.
Suzanne Collins tends to be inconsistent with her pacing. Generally her pacing is very quick, but then sometimes it will randomly get really slow and lethargic for a little while before suddenly picking up again. From what I remember, the pacing of this book is pretty solid, but it might get a bit wonky here and there.