Underland Reviews: Gregor the Overlander (chapters 4-7)

Chapter 4

We last left off with Vikus asking Gregor if he’s from New York. Vikus’ question makes Gregor suddenly remember that he’s supposed to be up in the laundry room and not in Goth Narnia and that his mother is probably going to be terrified when she realizes he and Boots are missing. Gregor tells the Underlanders that he needs to be going home right now, but…

The old man was still examining him closely. “It is simple to fall down, but the going up requires much giving.”

“What do you mean?” asked Gregor, his throat tightening.

“He means you cannot go home, said Luxa flatly. “You must stay with us in the Underland.”

“Uh, no! No, thank you!” said Gregor. “I mean, you’re all great, but I’ve got stuff to do… upstairs!” he said. “Thanks again! Nice meeting you! Come on, Boots!”

As much as I feel bad for Gregor, this makes me laugh. Does he really think it’ll be that easy to leave? Does he have any idea how he’s even going to get back? I guess fear can make people irrational, though.

So Gregor tries to run for the exit, but he’s blocked by a bunch of Underlanders on giant bats. He realizes that leaving isn’t an option and goes back to talk to Luxa and Vikus. Luxa tells Gregor that he’ll have to bathe when he gets to the palace, which sounds rude but it’s actually for his own good. Most creatures in the Underland can sense that Gregor and Boots are Overlanders based on smell alone. And they also have very good sense of smell, and can sense them from very far away. And some of them are not fond of Overlanders.

Luxa hops on her bat to fly to the palace while Vikus leads Gregor there on foot. They talk a bit as they’re walking, and Gregor learns that he’s not the first Overlander to have fallen into the Underland. He’s not even the first Overlander that Vikus has met. However, none of the other Overlanders survived long in the Underland.

“You mean you killed them?”

Now he’d insulted the guy.

“We? We humans kill the Overlanders! I know of your world, of the evils that transpire there. But we do not kill for sport!” said Vikus severely. “Today we have taken you in among us. Had we denied you, count on it, you would not be breathing now!”

Turns out suggesting that the people taking you in are murderers is a bad idea, who would’ve thought. I do find it a bit ironic for Vikus to be talking about “the evils that transpire” in the Overland as if implying that those same evils don’t happen in the Underland. I’m not saying that the Overland doesn’t suck, but it’s not like the Underland is a peaceful utopia and it only takes us a few chapter to realize that it isn’t.

Chapter 5

Suzanne Collins isn’t the best writer. Even The Hunger Games didn’t have very good writing, so it’s not just because this is a children’s series. Collins is very good at crafting stories and characters, and her books are certainly very interesting and entertaining and I love them and I love her. But the actual writing itself? Not her strong suit.

However, there are times where I do like her writing. Like here, when she describes the human city of Regalia.

The buildings here were all a lovely misty gray, which gave them a dreamlike quality. They seemed to rise directly out of the rock as if they had been grown, not made by human hands. Maybe they weren’t as tall as the skyscrapers Gregor knew by name, but they towered high above his head, some at least thirty stories and finished in artful peaks and turrets. Thousands of torches were placed strategically so that a soft, dusky light illuminated the entire city.

And the carvings… Gregor had seen cherubs and gargoyles on buildings before, but the walls of Regalia crawled with life. People and cockroaches and fish and creatures Gregor had no name for fought and feasted and danced on every conceivable inch of space.

This is probably the most detailed description we get of anything in this book. I like it a lot though, it’s simplistic but nice, and it gives a clear idea of Regalia’s unconventional beauty.

I also really liked this:

The lights shining from the city’s many windows gave it a festive look, and Gregor felt his heart lightening a little. New York City glittered all night long, too. Maybe this place wasn’t so foreign after all.

It’s cute that Gregor is able to take comfort in twinkling lights that remind him of home.

As they’re walking, Gregor asks Vikus how he knew Gregor was from New York City. Vikus explains that there are only five known entrances to the Underland. Two lead to “the Deadland”, two open into the Waterway, and since Gregor is neither dead nor wet, Vikus figured he must have come from the fifth one, the mouth of which is in New York City.

This makes me wonder, how big is the Underland exactly? Does it stretch under all of New York City? All of New York state? All of America? All of the world? Are there other underground lands not connected to this one Underland? Like, is there a different Underland in Europe or something? We never actually find out how big the Underland really is.

We also find out how Gregor and Boots managed to survive the fall down to the Underland. The misty stuff was actually the currents, which come and go and luckily happened to coincide with the time that they fell. If the currents hadn’t been there, they would have fallen to their deaths. Yikes.

They get to the palace, which unlike every other building is entirely smooth and circular, and the highest window is two hundred feet above ground. Most enter the palace on their bats, but there’s also a platform that can be lowered for people who don’t have bats. Inside the palace, Gregor is left with two guards, Mareth and Perdita, and a nanny named Dulcet. The nanny is there for Boots’ sake.

As they’re led to the baths, Gregor starts thinking of an escape plan which… is a really bad idea. I get that he’s a scared and desperate eleven year old, and really I have no idea what I would be thinking if I was in his situation. I’d probably be praying that I don’t run into any more giant bugs. But there’s no way Gregor will be able to escape on his own and he must know that on some level.

Chapter 6

After the baths it’s time for dinner, and we’re introduced to two new characters. One of them is Solovet, Vikus’ wife. She greets Gregor very warmly and shakes his hand (she’s the only Underlander to have actually touched Gregor so far).

The other new character is Luxa’s sixteen year old cousin, Henry.

Gregor wanted to laugh. Here among all these strange names was a Henry.

Right?? I remember smiling when I first read this line because seriously, Henry sounds so comically mundane compared to all of these other names. I felt the same way meeting Johanna and Annie in The Hunger Games, cause you have all of these characters with names like Katniss and Haymitch and Thresh and Beetee and then there’s just. Johanna and Annie.

We’re also introduced to Aurora and Euripedes, who are bats, but we don’t learn much about either of them over the course of the series. In this scene, however, we learn that Aurora and Euripedes are “bonded” to Luxa and Vikus respectively.

What does it mean for humans and bats (or “fliers”) to be bonded? Well, humans and fliers formed a close alliance very soon after humans came to the Underland, and sometimes one bat and one human form a very close friendship and take a vow to be bonded together, which basically means that they protect each other at all costs. It’s something humans and fliers take very seriously.

Gregor asks them if they ever bond with crawlers too.

Henry snorted with laughter. “I would as soon bond with a stone. At least it could be counted on not to run away in battle.”

Luxa broke into a grin. “And perhaps you could throw it. I suppose you could throw a crawler…”

“But then I would have to touch it!” said Henry, and the two cracked up.

Yeah, so, I don’t like Henry very much.

“The crawlers are not known for their fighting ability,” said Vikus, by way of explanation to Gregor. Neither he nor Solovet were laughing. He turned to Luxa and Henry. “Yet they live on. Perhaps when you can comprehend the reason for their longevity you will have more respect for them.” Henry and Luxa attempted to look serious, although their eyes were still laughing.

“It is of little consequence to the crawlers whether I respect them or not,” said Henry lightly.

“Perhaps not, but it is of great consequence whether Luxa does. Or so it will be in some five years when she comes of age to rule,” said Vikus. “At that time, foolish jokes at the crawlers’ expense may make the difference between our existence and our annihilation. They do not need to be warriors to shift the balance of power in the Underland.”

Well, damn. What Vikus said kind of kills the mood, but he has a great point. It would be better to have the cockroaches as allies than as enemies, and the cockroaches have managed to live this long even without physical strength or fighting ability. That says something about them.

It also says something about Henry that he can’t appreciate this. The crawlers don’t possess qualities that he deems valuable, and are therefore unfit to live. Never mind that the crawlers must have some survival instincts to have lived this long, if Henry doesn’t see them as useful he can’t be bothered to try to understand them, let alone respect them. (Luxa is guilty of this too, but she also does seem to take Vikus’ words to heart. She sobers up after his little speech, anyway.)

While they’re eating dinner, we also learn the story of how humans came to be in the Underland. Some time in the 1600’s, a guy called Bartholomew of Sandwich (seriously) who had visions of the future saw the Underland in a dream and wanted to find it.

Sandwich and a group of followers had sailed to New York, where he got on famously with the local tribe. The Underland was no secret to the Native Americans, who had made periodic trips below the earth for ritual purposes for hundreds of years. They had little interest in living there and didn’t care if Sandwich was mad enough to want to.

This part always struck me as a bit odd. Is it wrong for Suzanne Collins to use Native Americans as part of the lore for her imaginary land? I’m not really sure if it is and I since I don’t really know what I’m talking about I’m, well, not going to talk about it. But I wanted to point out the passage any way because I was never sure what to make of it, I was never sure if there was something there to take offense to or not. If anyone who knows more about this than me wants to expand on this a little, go ahead.

Something that I can actually expand on a bit is that part about Sandwich being “mad enough” to want to live in the Underland. Throughout all of Collins’ books, including THG, there’s a lot of throwing around words like “crazy” and “mad”. THG and TUC both have quite a few characters who are mentally ill in one way or another, and their portrayals range from pretty good to… questionable, let’s say. I’ll probably come back to this a lot during these reviews.

Chapter 7

Right, so this is the chapter where Gregor makes his escape and it goes about as well as you’d expect.

His plan is to follow the sound of rushing water in the palace to make his way to the Waterway, which Vikus mentioned has an exit to the Overland.

Not a bad plan, I guess, but Gregor really didn’t think it all the way through. He doesn’t know where the exit actually is, he doesn’t know how long he has to travel on the Waterway to get to the exit, he doesn’t know what to do once he reaches the exit, he doesn’t know what other dangers he might meet on his way there. I’ll cut him some slack because A) he’s eleven and B) he’s terrified and panicking but still, this is a really poorly thought out plan.

By the way, when I say that I think Gregor’s plan is bad, that’s not a criticism of the book or of Collins’ writing. Gregor is characterized as being impulsive and a lot of his actions are based on emotion. His plan is bad and that’s absolutely the point.

He gets to a river with a current so powerful it can carry along boulders (is that even possible??), but he knows that it can be travelled on because the Underlanders have boats. He manages to get one into the water just as the Underlanders find him.

Despite his head start, the Underland bats catch up to him quickly. He pulls his boat up onto a beach and plans to hide in a cavern until the Underlanders pass, but he runs into a rat in the cavern. Literally, he runs right into it.

Aaaand here’s where shit gets exciting. In the next chapter, I mean. This one ends with a cliffhanger, just like most chapters in TUC and THG do.

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