May 17, 2007


Underland Chronicles No. 5: Gregor and the Code of Claw. By Suzanne Collins. Scholastic. $17.99.

The Golden Hamster Saga, Book V: Freddy’s Final Quest. By Dietlof Reiche. Translated by John Brownjohn. Illustrated by Joe Cepeda. Scholastic. $16.99.

      Turns out they both held a little something in reserve. Suzanne Collins and Dietlof Reiche deliberately waited for the final volumes of their five-book series to broaden the scope of their work, bring in some new thoughts while further developing familiar characters, and provide satisfactory – if decidedly bittersweet – endings.

      The conclusion of The Underland Chronicles returns to the pell-mell pace and high intensity of the early volumes, after a somewhat disappointing fourth book (Gregor and the Marks of Secret) that seemed much like a placeholder setting up a final resolution. Gregor and the Code of Claw, it turns out, is very much worth waiting for. Here Gregor sees the final prophecy associated with his existence as an Underland warrior, and it is a frightening one indeed, predicting that the warrior will die. Gregor’s mother and his little sister, Boots, remain in Regalia, and Gregor knows he must try to rescue them and get his family home safely despite the prophecy’s dire prediction. The fate of Underland itself awaits Gregor’s actions, and as his dark side grows stronger, Gregor the Overlander needs to find his own place as well as dealing with a war to end all wars. And if that sounds familiar, it should, being a description in our human world of what became known as World War I – which of course did nothing whatsoever to end wars. The human world, and Gregor’s awareness of it, are increasing elements of the progress of Gregor and the Code of Claw, as the attack of the rat army in Underland finds parallels in the world above, such as the uncertainty of alliances: “Gregor found it difficult to believe the ants would join ether the humans or the rats. They had made it very clear they wanted both species dead.” Gregor finds he must make decisions he does not wish to make (even more so than in earlier books), and the final battle – involving bats, cockroaches, mice, spiders and others – leads to a deadly confrontation with the Bane and a very strange way of fulfilling the last prophecy. There is little joy at the end of this extended story, but that little proves most welcome after a very dark tale indeed.

      The Golden Hamster Saga is altogether more lighthearted, and Freddy’s Final Quest brings it to an appropriately upbeat conclusion, although not without a few tears being shed. Freddy Auratus’ journey here is not to a place, as in the fourth volume, The Haunting of Freddy, but through time itself. In fact, Freddy finds himself in a land of Crusaders and wild golden hamsters as he and his companions – Sir William the tomcat, Enrico and Caruso the guinea pigs, and Tjark the robot hamster – try to save a young boy’s life. There is plenty of humor here: “Time travel with guinea pigs is bad for hamsters (Freddy’s First Law of Time Travel).” But there are serious occurrences too, as the journey to Assyria results in Enrico and Caruso being captured and put on the Crusaders’ menu. The unexpected attraction between Freddy and a wild hamster named Zuleika points the way toward the eventual happy ending: “Zuleika rose to her feet, looking extraordinarily attractive. Those neat little ears, those dark, expressive eyes, that little pale pink nose, that silky golden fur… But I guess I’m repeating myself.” Still, there are adventures aplenty before Freddy can find his own version of the Promised Land – from which the destruction of the time machine guarantees he cannot return. Nor, in the end, does he want to, no matter how much affection he feels for the humans and other species with which he has been interacting. None of them, after all, is a golden hamster. And even though Freddy knows that living in the wild will mean the loss of his ability to read and write – because he won’t need it anymore – he realizes, “I probably wouldn’t miss it too much.” Readers of The Golden Hamster Saga will surely miss Freddy, however. Yet he is happy at the end, and what more could readers wish for him?

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