by Kim Van Sickler
As many people did, I inhaled the Hunger Games series. I deemed author Suzanne Collins to be ridiculously brilliant. I put her on a pedestal and aspired to someday being half as good a writer as her.
And then in April 2012, I drove my daughter and her friend on an obnoxiously long car trip (2,780 miles in one week) and decided to make the most of that dead time by listening to Collins' earlier series, "The Underland Chronicles." They are five books about an eleven-year old Overlander (regular human) boy who turns twelve before the series is complete. In Book One he crawls through an air duct in his NYC apartment building to retrieve his two-year-old sister, and finds himself transported on an extraordinary air current to the Underland.
Listening to Gregor's exploits in Gregor the Overlander, Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane, Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, Gregor and the Marks of Secret, and Gregor and the Code of Claw, I came to see Suzanne Collins in an entirely different way. I felt like a proud mother watching her child grow up.
The series is good. But it's not brilliant. In so many places I see Suzanne grappling with story arc, pacing, and conflict. Character development of all but a few characters is sketchy. In this series, she spends most of her time wowing us with her gigantic Underworld creatures: fliers (bats), crawlers (cockroaches), gnawers (rats), nibbles (mice), spinners (spiders), cutters (ants), shiners (fireflies), stingers (scorpions), diggers (star-nosed moles), hissers (lizards) and killers, (humans who are so pale as to be translucent, with silver hair and violet eyes.) Totally appropriate for a middle grade audience, but still, lacking the polish of her later works.
She cut her teeth on this series. She did not spring fully formed into a New York Times best seller and recipient of about twenty-four other prestigious book awards. Rather, she slogged her way through 1,757 pages, developing her trademark style. I got excited whenever I saw a glimpse of the Suzanne Collins to come.
Gregor, her reluctant hero, is endearing because he becomes the caretaker of his two-year-old sister, Boots, while busily trying to fulfill prophecies in the Underland. In Book Two: Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane, when he is charged with killing the Bane, who turns out to be a baby rat, Gregor struggles to decide what to do. A hero with a big heart. Traces of Katniss.
In Book Three: Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, Gregor and company travel to The Jungle and the Vineyard of the Eyes where carnivorous plants, sentient plants with eyes, lure them into traps they must band together to fight their way out of. Not so different from the bizarre forces of nature in the Arena.
Solovet is the female commander of the human Underlanders, someone who takes her job so seriously that she crosses some very clear ethical lines. Foreshadowing of President Snow.
Ripred is a battle-scarred rat with a heart buried somewhere underneath all the cynicism. He's a master manipulator and reminds me of Haymitch.
Suzanne Collins didn't get where she was with sheer talent. She practiced her craft and honed it admirably in the Underland Chronicles series. It appears that for most of us, even Suzanne Collins, we must put in the time before we reap the rewards. We've got to keep slogging away.