Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods Review

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As a child, Curse of the Warmbloods was always my favorite entry in the Underland Chronicles. And as a child, I never really understood why. I always thought it was my fascination with an area of the Underland that stuck out compared to the rest: a humid, isolated jungle of vines and carnivorous plants in a world where trees do not grow. However, on a more simplistic, child-like mindset, I always really enjoyed the cover art for the third edition to the series. Look at that menacing reptile. Look at those skulls littering the path in front of it. Look at how these shades of green correspond with one another to create a bleak, yet serene landscape of an undisturbed wasteland. I find it so enveloping, even now, that I can’t help but give it a stark advantage for presentation alone.

Leaping into Curse of the Warmbloods for a third time, I can now acknowledge what makes this novel superior to the two prior entries.

After the events of Prophecy of Bane, Gregor is conflicted with a new prophecy given to him by Nerissa, the cousin of Luxa and a member of the Regalian royal line. The prophecy is written backwards, only able to be interpreted when shown in a mirror. One day, Gregor receives an urgent message from Regalia that a plague has set itself upon the Underland that kills any warm-blooded creature, and they require his assistance to go on a quest to find a cure. This plague described in the message is eerily similar to the one written in the prophecy Gregor has in his possession. With no other choice, Gregor is again dragged back to the Underland in order to fulfill a prophecy he never cared to participate in.

A common complaint of mine for the Underland Chronicles up to this point was that it was too simplistic in mind and didn’t offer very much in terms of critical thinking. This is more apparent in the first book, but the second book doesn’t delve much into the concept of graying the lines of the text either. It is not until Curse of the Warmbloods that the series begins to not only tell, but show the instability between good and evil, and that the stance of those in power doesn’t necessarily correlate with everyone with whom they rule over. This is one of few key elements present that make the third edition of the Underland Chronicles the gateway to a deeper and more involved story.

While the subjects involved become more multi-dimensional, the way the story is written changes very little, if at all. The story still relies on the bare necessities of description to inch the story forward. Writing that cuts to the chase, without any sort of unnecessary information that may dwindle along from the main path. As a result, Gregor, as the observer in the whole of the story, doesn’t dwell on various issues as much as perhaps he should. I’ll admit that the amount of insight or inner monologues that Gregor has to himself is somewhere between the first and the second novel; I feel it’s more balanced, but still somewhat scarce. Nevertheless, it doesn’t leave much for Gregor’s own self as a character in the story, and rather someone who serves as the eyes of the reader with a blanket cover of basic morality and righteousness.

Up to this point, the humans were shown to be the force of good will and the rats were the mindless monsters of brutality and hostility. The involvement of characters such as Ripred and Twitchtip, two rats that join the mostly human and bat cast as allies during quests, gives a little leeway into showing the “humanity” present within the Underland rat colony, but they could just as easily be perceived as outliers. Present within Curse of the Warmbloods is motivation to believe that the alignments assigned to creatures in the Underland aren’t established without bias. Put more bluntly, humans are just as capable of committing immoral acts than that of their “gnawer” counterparts. All they need is the proper motivation to do so.

Another welcome addition to the story is the concept of discord within the ranks of the Regalian empire. As is typical when dealing with politics and war procedures, not everyone will agree with one overall tactic or ideology. With the arrival of new characters comes the roots of history that plague certain members of the Regalian council, giving more insight to individual character’s beliefs, and the promise of justifiable injustice for the perceived safety or stability of the race. This may all sound standard for any story involving a world constantly at war with another country, civilization, or race, but with a series written as simplistically and as inclined as the Underland Chronicles has been up to this point, it feels like the world of Regalia and the Underland as a whole has finally been opened up to a more logical and realistic state of awareness.

As overjoyed as I am to finally see this series expand upon its potential, there are still a lot of leaps taken in terms of story and character development. For those who have read my review on The Prophecy of Bane, one would be aware of the criticism I have of every story being entirely too similar. This is not something that changes in Curse of the Warmbloods, as anything that takes place throughout the course of the quest in the previous two books is relatively unchanged in the third. Gregor goes on a quest. Something bad happens that slows the quest. Characters interact and Gregor makes a new friend(s) in the most unlikely of places. The quests hits its climax and another bad thing happens. The questers are left hopeless until they achieve hope somewhere else. The end presents a successful, yet unfulfilling foreshadowing of the future. Lather, rinse, buy a new sink.

I’ve also noticed a continuing trend among the selection of deaths present in the series. As violent a premise as the Underland Chronicles has and the ever-waging war between races, death is a common occurrence within these novels. However, one has to wonder the coincidence of the deaths occurring to characters introduced in the book they perish in. The mere mention of this may present spoilers, but it’s not guaranteed that characters introduced in a certain story will die within the same book, only that their chances of death skyrocket compared to others. I only bring this up because I feel it leaves out more impact the reader could have if the characters were present more throughout the series, as opposed to dying within the first hundred or so pages of when they were introduced. It becomes more of a game of “Who’s next?” and less about the impact of the loss of those involved.

The repetition present in the way the story is told is alarming, but I feel Gregor acts more his age in here than in other books. He’s more demanding of people and less inclined to think about what he says before he says things. Not to mention, he allows the prejudice he has built towards rats and other races aside from those constantly aligned with the humans to give a sense of distrust a child would have towards things taught to them by others to distrust. He’s still morally good and prioritizes others upon himself, but at least he has more of a self-centered snarl to him this time around. Other characters present are also given a little more depth to them in terms of how their history affects their motivations. Sadly, a lot of the potential is used towards new characters that may or may not survive until the next book, but characters such as Ripred, Vikus, and Solovet, three characters present since the first novel, have a lot more attention garnered towards their personal history, whether good or bad. Curse of the Warmbloods is more guilty of using characters as tools to further display the history and instability of the Underland and its inhabitants than as individuals, but it’s not entirely that way. To be frank, I think Suzanne Collins holds a clear favoritism towards Ripred.

While the second novel overindulges in description to some degree, I feel Curse of the Warmbloods goes back to barely describing anything at all. I believe Collins favors dialogue between characters and progressing the story over accurately depicting a scene, as sometimes I can’t quite tell what’s even going on in a particular scene. Most of the time, vague clues are the only indicator of the general make-up of Gregor or any other character’s location, whether it be “Hospital,” “Throne room,” “Jungle,” or “Vineyard.” I’m struck with trying to identify the location based on what I already know of these places to generally look like, rather than have the book describe to me what makes these locations different to set apart the Underland from the real world. For those uninterested in spending paragraph after paragraph being told what everything looks like, the Underland Chronicles certainly won’t bore you with its attention to detail. However, when the setting is an entirely new world with a vast array of locations and interesting possibilities, I feel the description should be on par with the magnitude of the location. At least the darkness present is a lazy handy tool to vaguely discard any fine detail.

In terms of structure and detail, Curse of the Warmbloods doesn’t do much to separate itself from the books prior. However, where it lacks in description, it more than makes up for in world-building and adding to the suspense of discord among the human species in Regalia, along with showcasing most species in a more multi-dimensional viewpoint. It gives a lot of potential to future editions and presents a sense of corruption that isn’t normally embodied in a series presented for older children. I enjoyed this book immensely and unless the last two books in the series dethrone it, it is still considered my favorite book of the series. If the series started here, I feel I could more confidently recommend it to people of any age, rather than its target demographic, but the repetition in story progression and the pragmatic sense of writing leaves a lot to be desired. Curse of the Warmbloods is still victim to these issues that have been incorporated since book one, but it’s the best direction the story could take with these issues in mind.

Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane Review

 

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I considered not reviewing this simply for the sake of avoiding repetition, as this book is almost entirely the same as its predecessor. However, I feel I should review every book in the series as it is, perhaps for lack of experience, my favorite book series. That being the case, a lot of what I’m going to talk about are summarized versions of what I already stated in my review of the first book, so if you find yourself wanting more clarity on the points I bring up, go read that one.

Prophecy of Bane leaves off a month or two after the events of the first book, with Gregor and his family coping with <first novel spoilers>. At some point (about twenty or so pages in), Gregor takes his sister, Boots, out to a park to go sledding in the winter snow. He drifts off into deep thought until he realizes the sun is setting, then calls for Boots to go home. The only problem is, she’s nowhere to be found. This triggers a series of events that lead Gregor back into the Underland, and much to his horror, there is a new prophecy that he’s destined to be a part of.

Right off the bat (ha), one can look at this plot and look at the plot for the first book and go “Oh. These are pretty similar.” I’ve got news for you: most books in the Underland Chronicles are the same. Gregor gets dragged to the Underland through one way or another, he finds out a prophecy tells him he has to go on an adventure, he goes on an adventure, he comes back, then realizes his work isn’t finished with the Underland, whether through another prophecy, the people outright telling him, etc. It’s somewhat like Super Mario Bros., except in novel form and the endings aren’t always happy. This in of itself is an issue for people (like me) who enjoy a variety of things from a particular series. Through Gregor’s case, one can say that the experience makes up for the lackluster storyline, but even so, it’s not always a great experience.

One of the things that the Underland Chronicles does well is provide new issues that follow Gregor throughout the series as a whole, as well as pace them well enough so that they work in terms of foreshadowing. Prophecy of Bane has a wide variety of these issues, such as echolocation, a “Rager” sense, and the identity of the Bane itself. Normally I wouldn’t speak of any of these issues in a review as they are technically spoilers, but the “Rager” sense is an issue with this novel I must discuss, but more on that later. There’s something about the incorporation of these seeded issues that make Prophecy of Bane more enjoyable, and give further interest to later editions of the series. In a sense, Prophecy of Bane is a more intriguing and better shrouded in mystery, while the first book was more about simply showing what the Underland and its denizens strive for. “The set-up,” if you will.

A crucial part of each story in the Underland Chronicles is the adventure Gregor and his comrades set forth upon. Much like the Super Mario Bros. analogy, the adventures tend to re-enact in almost the same way in each title. The humans shove off to fulfill the terms of a prophecy, with a number of returning and new characters making the trip, including, but not limited to, humans, rats, roaches, and bats. They run into one or two key issues during the trek, that may or may not injure/kill a few of the members of the group, leading the rest to either move on slower or have them be sent back to safety, with Gregor feeling bad about how useless he is. All of this leads up to some crucial moment where Gregor’s decision/realization could change the outcome of the trip and the state of the Underland itself. Of course, not all trips play out exactly like that, but they’re all pretty similar to that. Prophecy of Bane is little different, but still enough to feel as though it’s a real adventure. Although, there is one key issue about this particular adventure that has always irked me, even upon my first reading of it: its pacing is weird.

In this adventure, Gregor and co. have to travel by boat into what is referred to as “The Labyrinth,” where the rats are keeping the Bane. They take two boats and fill their capacity with capable members and shove off onto “the Waterway” in the direction of said Labyrinth. The next, oh, hundred pages or so focus on that boat ride. During this time, the novel focuses on dialogue between characters and Gregor thinking. A lot. Add in a few key events here and there and you have yourself half an adventure. On a slow boat ride. With talking and thinking. It’s far too dragged out for its own good and it makes the adventure feel dull. I’m all for character interaction, but a good majority of it seems to be Gregor and co. complaining about the fireflies, who join the quest to make use of their light and are intentionally written as rude and egotistical. Ha ha. There’s too much attention on comic relief and not enough crucial development between characters, aside from Gregor, Luxa, and Howard.

Once the Labyrinth has been breached, it only spends about fifty or so pages within, and some of that is trying to find the Bane and escaping from it. Which leads to Gregor escaping back to Regalia. Great, more traveling. There seems to be a huge amount of time dedicated to traveling in this book. Sometimes it’s drawn out, like the boat ride, and sometimes it’s lightning fast, like after visiting the Labyrinth. There’s not enough action, I feel, within this particular book. Not enough meaningful conversations between secondary characters. Not enough spice to add onto the in-between scenes; the traveling, the planning, the filler. And worse yet, this is when Collins feels she needs to overindulge in description. Unfiltered description with little to no weight is the worse kind of description.

Speaking of description, Prophecy of Bane offers a little more of it than in the first novel, however, as I said above, a lot of it is unnecessary. Describing things like areas that Gregor has already been before. Describing things in the most basic of manners. Fortunately, there is also a good amount of self-description and description of character emotions, which was for the most part lacking in the first novel. Injuries and bruises are detailed spectacularly, enough to make me imagine horrific kinds of things. Crying and anger and anguish. I genuinely feel these characters care about their losses this time around. A lot of carry-on feelings from the first book return as well, which is a nice touch.

The writing, aside from some more description, is still as pragmatic as ever. Gregor does this. Gregor does that. This happens. That happens. Rats do this. Bats do that. Fireflies are dumb. The only real insight given are insights within the mind of Gregor, who is eleven, so he will only think the most mundane and simplistic thoughts ever. Are all rats bad? Are all humans good? Is killing wrong? Am I a monster? Should I be gentle with others’ feelings? Can I judge people from their backgrounds? How is my family? Yeah, yeah, yeah. I realize this is a book for middle schoolers, but c’mon.

I think I may have said it lightly in my review of the first book, but I just can’t believe Gregor is eleven. His mindset and intellectual capabilities paint me the image of an almost grown teenager, maybe sixteen or seventeen. Sure, he doesn’t swear and he’s been through a lot, but really, I don’t know any eleven year old that behaves and thinks as eloquently as Gregor does. Same goes for Luxa. She has a better case as she’s raised under a different culture and she’s shown signs of rebellion and inexperience, but she’s eleven. Eleven year olds shouldn’t act the way Luxa does. Or Gregor, for that matter. It’s not realistic.

Now then, the “Rager” sense. This sense allows Gregor to pick up a weapon and instantly be incredibly skilled with whatever and mow down enemies like he’s playing Dynasty Warriors. This is dumb. Why does he have this? How does he have this? How does this make any sense? How can someone instantly be fine-tuned to know everything about combat with any fighting experience? Is he a robot? Is he a superhero? Why is this just now coming up? Hasn’t he ever been in a fight? When does this sense kick in? Whenever he’s focused? Whenever he has killing intent? Has he never been so mad at anyone that he’s never felt this sensation come upon him? Does he need something in his hand? Why? Why can’t he just activate it? If he can, how does he activate it? Can it be anything in his hand? What about a notebook? A laptop? A plate with a piece of cake on it? A lot of these questions are fucking stupid, yes, but they’re legitimate questions about some made-up sensation that doesn’t have any guidelines. And that’s the issue: it gives Gregor a superpower that makes him more useful than anybody, and, to some extent, invincible. It drops suspense and it encourages fantasy bullshit explanations and resolutions. This isn’t a complete flaw as he only uses it once in any real combat, but it’s the beginning of something that gives him a handicap despite not putting hardly any work into it. Don’t you hate perfect characters?

I wouldn’t call Prophecy of Bane a worser version of the first title, as it has (barely) enough separating it as a “new” adventure. As a kid, Prophecy of Bane was always my least favorite title in the series, however, upon re-reading it, I think it slightly edges out the first book in most ways. My enjoyment of the first book is still intact, but Prophecy of Bane is an overall improvement objectively in regards to what the first title in the series set for itself. There’s better suspense, better description (to a degree), better character interaction (between major characters), and more reason for the reader to continue the series by book’s end. If I were scoring these, I’d rate it higher than the first book, but I feel the first title had a sort of magic that made it more enjoyable. Nevertheless, Prophecy of Bane is enough of a kick for the Underland Chronicles to progress the series in the right direction.

Gregor the Overlander Review

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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.