Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane: Book Two in the Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins.
The Plot: Eleven year old Gregor and his toddler sister, Boots, are readjusting to life back home in New York City, the "Overland," after their adventures and misadventures in the "Underland," the world of tunnels that is miles under the "Overland", and is populated by people and giant talking cockroaches, bats, rats, and spiders. Gregor thinks he has left that scary place behind him; but then his sister Boots is kidnapped by giant cockroaches and Gregor finds himself pulled back into the Underland, to save not only his sister but the entire Underland.
The Good: For a fantasy quests to truly work, the risks must be real. And in the Underland Chronicles, the risks are real; death is more than a possibility; death is a reality. People get hurt, and stay hurt.
Gregor may be eleven, but at times he sounds older, which works very well. In the Overland, the family is barely surviving so Gregor has had to grow up soon, with a Saturday job, taking care of two younger sisters, an ill father, and an ill grandmother. In the Underland, Gregor is also treated as an adult. His opinions are listened to; he gets a sword and is expected to fight.
While there are moments of sheer terror, there are also moments that are laugh out loud funny. Collins captures all that I like best about quest fiction: the bringing together of people who wouldn't otherwise be friends, who then find commonalities.
In addition to great characters, there is a plot that twists and turns yet always makes sense.
The "Prophecy" has multiple meanings and interpretations, and I didn't always see where Collins was going. It was great.
Another wonderful thing about fantasy is what the fantasy world tells us about our world. Gregor has to grapple with some very important questions and issues: what is right? what is wrong? when is killing OK? what does loyalty mean? Collins has created a world full of gray: initially it appears black and white, with the rats all evil and the people all good, but as Gregor learns more about the rats he begins to doubt the Underlanders "the only good rat is a dead rat" belief.
A must read for fantasy fans. While there are scary parts and sad parts, this is great for any age. If a kid has read Harry Potter, then this is a book that will work for him or her.
Book Two? What about Book One? Book One is Gregor the Overlander. And I think it's best to read them in order, but it's possible at this point to enjoy Book Two without having read Book One. This is part of a five book series.
Another thing I liked: Collins manages to wrap up the key story points so that Book Two appears to be complete, and the reader is satisfied, yet at the same time she leaves some issues open for the next book. To often, this is done in a way that is frustrating, with the reader wanting to throw the book against the wall as they realize the entire ending is a cliff hanger. (What, I'm the only one who does this?)