Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
Publication Year: 2003
Genre: Middle-grade, Fantasy
Series: Underland Chronicles #1
Awards: Nominated for a few children's awards
Format: Audio (cd from library)
Narrator: Paul Boehmer
Gregor is a good-natured boy living a pretty hard life in New York City. Two years previously, his father had disappeared without a trace and consequently the family left behind is in pretty desperate circumstances. Gregor finds himself spending his summer holiday from school watching his toddler sister, Boots, and taking care of the household chores. Then, one ordinary day he and his sister are sucked into a vent in the laundry room and find themselves deposited in another world under ground. The world is the Underland where a small population of humans thrive amidst talking cockroaches and bats bigger than horses. It's a dangerous place and the humans take him under their wing suspecting he may be the answer to a prophecy. Gregor plays along because the prophecy seems to hint that the journey they must go on may reunite him with his father!
On the surface this is your basic quest fantasy with a young unlikely hero but there were a few things that made it rise above the ordinary for me. First was the Underland itself. It's atmospheric and bizarre with an elaborate and rather interesting history. The denizens of the Underland are also suitably strange and distinct, though familiar (bats, rats, cockroaches and spiders). There are giant freakin' bats that people ride! How cool is that?
Secondly the characters of Gregor and Boots are really great. Gregor has this sarcastic wit that endears him to me more than your average boy turned hero. He also comes across as an exceptionally mature but also pretty typical pre-adolescent boy in his circumstances. And Boots. I did wonder a time or two why she was in the story but she's the most charming two year old ever and ultimately I was glad she was there. I think part of her charm was due to how great a job the narrator did reading her.
Finally, it centers on a riddle/prophecy that adds an air of mystery to the story and there is a nice twist at the end that I found suitably dramatic.
And did I mention the giant bats you can ride??!!
FINAL VERDICT: A pretty typical quest fantasy that ticks all the boxes but surpasses others of its kind with a unique imagination, an interesting setting and a particularly charming central character. The audio of the book was excellent and I think added to my enjoyment. 4 out of 5 Stars.