“The fast-paced, detailed narrative features vivid battle scenes (complete with gore), dangerous alliances, some frighteningly close calls, and the sobering death of comrades-in-arms. Cliffhanger chapter endings propel the story forward to its inevitable but nevertheless immensely satisfying conclusion, which, happily for readers, hints at more heart-pounding journeys to the center of the earth.”
– The Horn Book Magazine in 2003 on one of Suzanne Collins’ novels
That sounds exactly like The Hunger Games, doesn’t it?
Actually, no. A few years before her YA Hunger Games trilogy became so famous that nearly everyone has heard of it if not read it, Collins wrote a five-book series for middle-grade readers. It’s called the Underland Chronicles. I think my brother and I found the first one when I was about nine or ten; we loved them. My brother isn’t a fan anymore (or pretends not to be because he’s weird that way) but I still am. I was ecstatic when the last book came out.
So I’ve been a Suzanne Collins fan for years and find it funny when someone tells me that because I’ve liked the Hunger Games for less than a year and didn’t even become really interested until after I saw the movie, there’s no way I can be a diehard fan of Suzanne Collins. I’m not trying to sound all hipster or “nerdier than thou” but dude, I was a fan of Suzanne Collins back when she wasn’t all that famous.
The weird thing is that although Ms. Collins’ dystopian trilogy is known by nearly everyone and read by millions, most people don’t know about the Underland Chronicles. I have several friends whose eyes got huge when I asked if they’d read her earlier books. “OH MY GOD, SHE HAS OTHER BOOKS?!” they said. They’re major fans of the trilogy but somehow never noticed that she has other books. Maybe I’m just a nerd, but when I finish an excellent book I always check the author bio to see what else they’ve written and then if they haven’t written anything else I have a sad.
The Underland Chronicles begin in New York City with an eleven-year-boy named Gregor. He lives with his mother, grandmother, and two younger sisters, Lizzie and “Boots”. Gregor’s father doesn’t live with them because he disappeared several years ago for no discernible reason. One hot and sticky summer day, Gregor is doing the laundry in his apartment when he sees two-year-old Boots messing with a metal grate. Below the grate lies a long dark tunnel; Boots and Gregor end up falling down there. They find themselves in a humongous network of huge caves, known as the Underland. But they’re not along – there are many supersized creatures such as bats, rats, cockroaches, lightning bugs, spiders, and mice. And a four-hundred-year-old human civilization.
Each of the books contains a prophecy and Gregor is always part of those prophecies. It shouldn’t have surprised me that Collins included several songs in the Hunger Games because she’s good at writing verse. I bet those prophecies were quite difficult to write. They have to make sense, yet can’t be too obvious because then there would be no point in reading the book to see what happens. They also have to rhyme.
This is the Prophecy of Gray from the first book:
“Beware, Underlanders / Time hangs by a thread / The hunters are hunted, white water runs red / The gnawers are sent to extinguish the rest / The hope of the hopeless resides in a quest. / An Overlander warrior, a son of the sun / May bring us back light, he may bring us back none / But gather your neighbors and follow his call / Or rats will most surely devour us all. / Two Over, Two Under, of royal descent/ Two flyers, Two crawlers, Two spinners assent / One gnawer beside and one lost up ahead / And eight will be left when we count up the dead. / The last who will die must decide where he stands / The fate of the eight is contained in his hands / So bid him take care / Bid him look where he leaps / As life may be death and death life again reaps.”
In order, these are the books with a short description of their plot:
- Gregor the Overlander – Um, Gregor discovers the Underland? He also SPOILER finds his dad.
- Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane – Our hero has to defeat the Bane, a legendary and terrible white rat.
- Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods – The Underland is stricken by a plague; Gregor and his friends must go to the (Underland) jungle to find the cure. This is my second favorite.
- Gregor and the Marks of Secret – A creature commands the rats and Gregor has to save the day once again by stopping him. Are you noticing a theme here yet? Also, lots and lots of war. This is my favorite of the series.
- Gregor and the Code of Claw – The Underland is now totally at war, Gregor is in totally in loooove, and the whole thing is a bloodbath.
Maybe some people haven’t bothered to read the Underland Chronicles because they’re written on “only” a middle-grade level. If so, they’re missing out on a lot. These are meant for younger readers, but they’re not happy-go-lucky books. They have war and treachery and lots of deaths. I haven’t ever come across another middle-grade book that deals with chemical warfare or that describes a certain character being eaten alive by mites. Actually, that last bit reminds me of Glimmer and the tracker jackers in The Hunger Games. There are loads of similarities between the two series.
They’re both about power struggles. And war. And violence. They’re about groups learning to get along, whether they be different species in the Underland or the thirteen districts of Panem. The characters are similar, too. Princess Luxa has a very Katniss-esque emotional detachment about her. Solovet and President Alma Coin could be sisters. Gregor and Katniss, while several years apart in age, have a lot in common. Both have younger sisters for whom they would do anything. Katniss goes into the Games for Prim; Gregor goes into the Underland for Boots. Finally, the way in which the story is told is similar. The Hunger Games is told in the first person and the Underland Chronicles in the third person, but both series divide their books in the same manner. Three parts of nine chapters each, for a total of twenty-seven chapters. Whoops, sorry, I started writing like Suzanne Collins. In sentence fragments. Oh no, there I go again! Ha ha.
The Hunger Games made me think a lot, but the Underland Chronicles made me think about good and evil first. Harry Potter didn’t start me thinking on good and evil not being absolute but instead having shades of gray. That’s because the Underland Chronicles got there first. Solovet’s character arc still fascinates me.
I think that probably the best indicator of just how much both of Collins’s series have affected me is that I listened to The Hunger Games film score while writing this.
P.S. The title comes from what the humans in the Underland say to each other in parting, because they fly on bats, you know? “Fly you high, Gregor the Overlander!” So have a very happy Hunger Games, and may the odds be ever in your favor that you can get these books at the library!