“Mareth took him to his old room, the one he’d shared with Boots. He took a short bath, just to lose the smell of rotten eggs that clung to him from the dripping tunnel, and fell into bed.
When he awoke, he sensed he had slept for a long time. For the first minute or two, he lay in drowsy security, not remembering. Then all that had happened flashed before his eyes, and he couldn’t stay in bed any longer. He took a second bath and then ate the food that had appeared in his room while he was gone.”
There are a lot of sequences just like this in Gregor the Overlander. Sequences that tell you exactly what happens without any additional information. He bathed. He slept. He woke. He remembered. He bathed again. He ate. Cue next scene.
It’s this sort of pragmatic style of writing that makes the story so easy to pick up. It doesn’t feel intimidating or far-fetched. It’s easily accessible and doesn’t require a lot of thought from the reader. It’s deceptively straight-forward and cuts to the chase.
Perhaps this is why I was so immersed with the world of Gregor the Overlander so quickly as a child. The promise of adventure and fantasy; an underground land where humans co-exist with giant insects and other various animals. It gave me this with only the key details to gnaw on. Gregor is introduced. His family is struggling without the help of their missing father. He falls down a laundry chute after trying to save his infant sister from the same fate. They survive miraculously and are met by giant cockroaches at the bottom.
We’re on page seventeen of a three-hundred page novel.
The plot arrives almost instantly. Any build-up is minimal. Any description is minimal. Just enough for a vague picture of the setting. The characters are frank, if not courteous with their emotions and ambitions. Running for miles takes up half a page. Conversations between only two characters, with other characters in the background (I think), are prominent. And finally, Gregor is the star of the show. The writing may be in third-person, but Collins did an excellent job of showcasing his most admirable feature: his moral justice. The will to do good and help those in need.
This was the greatest story I’d ever read as a child. But I am no longer a child. I am an adult. An adult who can think. An adult who can reason. An adult who can challenge. And challenge, I shall.
I will admit, this story is still very enjoyable to me. Enveloped in my nostalgia, my cynical mind grew muggy while trying to spot fallacies. My attachment to the characters was evident even when they were first introduced. I knew what would happen. I remember almost everything about this book series. To an extent, it hindered the emotional impact of the twists and turns this story tries to offer. However, from an analytical standpoint, this makes my judgment sharper, more focused on how the plot develops and whether it could provide that emotional impact through the eyes of others. Nostalgia and the reflection of my childhood state harboring a glimmer of sentimentality, my third reading of Gregor the Overlander allowed me to grasp its story for what it really was.
It was kinda bad.
Though, this statement also depends on your preference in story-telling. The pragmatic style of writing described above is one such problem, in that it leaves no room for interpretation. There’s nothing to truly understand. Nothing substantial, anyway. It’s a cut and dry adventure flick with all action and no tension. Collins provided all that was necessary to keep the story moving. It really feels as though she moved a tad too fast.
This is also apparent with description. Even as a child, I always found it hard to really imagine the Underland. Reading it again as a fully functioning adult, there was a reason for that.
“Mareth led him to a small room where a meal was laid out, then stood watch at the door.”
A small room.
“They flew through dark tunnels for hours.”
Dark tunnels. There’s another thing: Collins takes full advantage of the Underland’s “darkness” to minimize as much description as possible. It happens repeatedly throughout the whole story.
“They dipped into a cavern that was so low, the bats’ wings brushed both the ceiling and floor. . .
The place reminded him of a pancake, round and large and flat.”
A low cavern that reminds Gregor of a pancake.
The story and its progression seem to overtake every other possible feature element. This makes the world-building seem uninspired. The characters become role-takers. The cliches begin to pile up and the story begins to look bad. There is so little underneath the pages’ words that it isn’t worth looking into. There are very few words that hold meaning, regardless. There is an emphasis on light being akin to life, as the Underland is devoid of both. While this means well, there isn’t enough motivation to really care for the Underland’s situation.
While the story tries to bring another world to life, it’s hard to view it with Gregor as the vocal point. Gregor as a character is incredibly unrealistic. He’s akin to the standard child hero trope, with a touch of tragedy to boot. He wishes for a peaceful, quiet life after the disappearance of his father leaves him traumatized and struggling to find happiness in any situation. Is this ever emphasized? Very slightly. Whenever it does, it usually leads to paragraph upon paragraph about what his father was like and how amazing he was and how much he misses him. It’s almost like the story is setting up a blatant plot device. Hmm.
Keep this in mind: Gregor is eleven years old. He is brave beyond his years. He doesn’t let out any more than a stutter to giant cockroaches, barely flinches with bats, is repulsed by spiders, and only terrified of the rats, the under-ambitious antagonists of the story. He speaks with wit and sarcasm. He’s quick to empathize, and almost always puts himself in others’ shoes. He does what’s good for everyone and not for himself, all while trying to avoid violence if at all possible.
Someone sign this kid up to play Jesus in the school play. He’ll make it spicy with his tongue.
My biggest problem with this story is its commitment to the story. Because of this, all other components suffer. But again, this is also a personal preference with story-telling. I enjoy chewing the food, as opposed to being fed a buffet. I ravish in description and vivid detail, assuming I care in the first place. I like to smell the roses, to appreciate the little trinkets crafted inside the seams. With Gregor the Overlander, focusing only on the story is enjoyable, if not tolerable. There’s enough there to keep those looking for a simple story satisfied. However, that’s its only true strength. Characters are bland, and don’t stray from their determined roles. Hell, Boots, Gregor’s two year-old sister, is treated more as a tool than a person. Description is bare minimum, forcing the reader to make up the bulk of the surroundings. There isn’t a lot of emotional impact due to a shortage of build-up to key plot points. The twists feel random. The adventure is a straight line. Oh, and the logic is faulty, too, but one would expect that from a children’s adventure-fantasy story.
One would be better suited filling the blanks themselves with a story such as this. Maybe that’s what I did subconsciously reading this story as a child. It’s just as, if not more enjoyable than following the conclusion to this ultimately predictable tale of life and light. I always wondered if I would enjoy Gregor the Overlander if I first read it as an adult than as a child. If this review is any indication, it would probably lead to a smirk of disapproval.