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You kids get off my lawn. 

Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane (The Underland Chronicles, Book 2) - Suzanne  Collins I have never had this experience before, but I spent the first few chapters of this book struggling to keep from bursting into tears. I knew Gregor and his family from the first book in this series, Gregor the Overlander, wherein Gregor fell into the Underland, a somewhat stock fantasy land far below the streets of New York. When I say that the Underland is off-the-shelf, this isn't really a criticism. I think Collins's strengths as a writer are much more centered in character than strict world-mechanics, so nitpicking about world-building misses the point that her places are more emotional/political landscapes than they are physical ones. (This goes for Panem too.) But it's still weird to be crying before the story even starts, just watching the uneasy denouement of the first book play out like a headache. Oh, Gregor, I'm so sorry.

So it has been about six months since Gregor and his sister have quested through the Underland and returned home. (All spoilers are for the first book.) Even though they were successful in finding their dad, he's spent 2 years imprisoned and tortured by rats, and his physical and mental health is fragile. Even though he's home, he's sick and unable to work. Gregor's mother is working near-constantly to feed, house and clothe six people, and it's not nearly enough. Gregor just killed me in this section - this 11-year old boy gulping down three glasses of water for breakfast, claiming he's not hungry, because there isn't enough cereal for his sisters if he eats. His work for an elderly neighbor who is so clearly aware of the family's poverty - how she sets up a way to provide Gregor grocery-money and food without hurting his pride. How he knows that's what she's doing, but gratefully pretends she just needs a hand with the storage area. It was the details that got me, over and over - three glasses of water, enough to get that full-belly feeling. The sled found in the trash and repaired with duct tape. The tissue at the toe of some hand-me-down boots.

Gregor and Boots fall back into the Underland, where the details are often as careful, but the details of a fantasy world are just not going to resonate as much. Which is the thing I find so amazing about this book, this series so far - how Collins creates this little wish-fulfillment exercise - this little quest for a boy on the cusp of manhood with swords and prophesy and stuff - and she embeds the need for the escape within the escapism. While not true for every person I knew who loved fantasy as a kiddie, I certainly had friends who gravitated to these kinds of stories because their lives were like Gregor's - families struggling with money, with various kinds of parental absenteeism, with family illnesses that drained. The responsibility of poverty hangs heavy on young people like Gregor, and a story about how you can change the fate of the world has an emotional reality to those whose situations are often just as dire, but less operatic.

Which is not to say that Gregor's quest is a bunch of fluffy bunnies and kicking butt simply because he's MOAR AWESOME ZOMG than anyone ever. He's an 11 year old boy with a temper who is occasionally a jerk. His jerkishness is mostly understandable, especially when he's being used by a rigid, irrationally prophetic culture for their own ends. (Why, yes, adult world, that is how you feel much of the time to children. And to this adult.) I'm still not enamored of stories with prophesies, though I'm getting the distinct impression that Collins is going somewhere with that concept given how it plays out here. Many of the plot twists were predictable to me, adult reader, which robbed them of some of their emotional snap - I mean, there's no way Harry Potter was going to die at the end of that series, nor would Hermione die in book three, would be my spoiler-avoiding way to put it - but Gregor's major compassionate and prophesy-confounding choice was excellent.

I had my problems with the first of this series, which were my problems and not the book's. I was so worried about where the absent dad thing was going to go, so worried about the ending handing me a puppy and a pat on the head - everything is perfect now! Yay! I hate that so much - so much! - that I forgot to notice that much of the desire for a perfect ending, where he finds his dad and now everything is awesome, high five! was the heart-felt wish of Gregor, something the character was articulating, not something the author was selling. A heart-felt wish of Gregor's which even he knows is unlikely to happen. Now, thank heavens, I've calmed the heck down and have trust in Collins to be true to Gregor, to his fantasy and real life situations - his heart-felt wishes and his more ambiguous realities, because they are both important. This book felt looser to me than the first - the ending less neat, not every thread tied off. Gregor's going back to the Underland, and you can bet I'm going with him.