This book was a landmark for me in a couple different ways. First and foremost, it was written by Suzanne Collins, who, of course, wrote The Hunger Games. You have to understand - The Hunger Games was the first YA book I ever read. It's what really sealed my love for the genre. I enjoyed Catching Fire almost as much, but it wasMockingjay that really blew me away. Its unrelenting intensity and its message about war... I'd never read anything like it. It was the first book I remember reflecting upon and thinking, "This is an honest picture of a set of experiences, and that scares the shit out of me."
So, obviously, I am in love with Suzanne Collins. The book was also a landmark in that it was the first middle-grade book I've read in two years, but the first reason was the main one. That being said, was it as good as The Hunger Games? Hell no. This book's characters weren't as well-defined, and the social commentary that made The Hunger Games special was completely absent.
Nevertheless, it was a strong middle-grade novel. It was nostalgic for me in its tone - about once every chapter, I'd run into a line and I'd think: "That's exactly the kind of the thing Loor [from the Pendragon series] would say," or "I read something kind of like this in The Stairway to Droon." The tone was the main reason. It was fantasy in exactly the way I used to love - full of unpredictable magic with a well-defined world, and, of course, tons of action. Anyone who read middle-grade in the era that I read it in (i.e. anywhere from 1997-2009) will feel right at home with this book - I certainly did.
The writing was easily the best part. Even if you didn't like the writing in The Hunger Games, I think you'd find it hard to complain about this. It was mildly fancy (less so than The Hunger Games, since this was written for kids), but I don't see how you could find it choppy, and it wasn't nearly as sparse as it could've been. The book was well-written, and comprehensible for kids, which is the best combination possible.
The only problem I had with the writing is that every once in a while, Collins seemed to suddenly remember that she was writing for kids, and she would throw in some kind of slang word that made the writing feel sort of artificial. It doesn't help that the writing is in third-person, which would be a great excuse to not do that. But the problem was an occasional one, and it didn't detract from the overall feel that I got from the book.
The worldbuilding was also quite good. The Underland was handled logically and consistently, and most elements of a society were considered. There was also some lovely creativity in terms of the culture of the Unerlanders, the Spinners (spiders), the Fliers (bats), ect. The world felt just as real as Panem, but I think that Collins's creation of it was more inventive than the creation of Panem was. There's a lot of unique aspects to like in this world.
The plot wasn't quite as good. This was an epic fantasy, which took me by surprise, but a good number of elements were there. Our hero is fated to go on a quest because of an ancient prophecy, among talking animals including cockroaches, bats, and Always Chaotic Evil rats*. Up until now, I've always assumed that epic fantasy wasn't for me, and after reading this, I have to say... yep, pretty much. The plot was fine in terms of pacing (for once - everything I've been reading lately seems to have pacing problems) and being thought out, but I was never truly engaged and immersed in it - it didn't offer me anything new that would serve as a reason two.
The characters were also a bit of a mixed bag. Gregor was a realistic eleven year-old, with a lot of details that made him more real. Moreover, I have to applaud Collins formaking him eleven. Even as a kid, I thought it was ridiculous that authors insisted on writing heroes that were double the audience's age. That's not the case here - Gregor will certainly be believable for both the target audience and some older readers as well. (Incidentally, this was my first time reading a book with a hero that was younger than me. The experience wasn't nearly as jarring as I thought it would be.)
The other characters were a bit more mixed. Like Gregor, Boots was well-drawn, with lots of little details to make her more real. Ripred was a nice subversion of Always Chaotic Evil, and Luxa was a great example of what can happen when a person loses everything they hold dear. But everyone else really blended together in my mind. I could barely give you a list of all the characters that made appearances, let alone give you descriptions of their personalities. This is a huge change from The Hunger Games, where all the tributes were easy to keep track of, despite their vast numbers.
But overall, this was still a strong middle-grade novel. Gregor is a relatable hero, the writing is great, and the world is believable. Any middle-grade audience, as well as some older readers, will definitely appreciate this book - I know I did.
*The Always Chaotic Evil was subverted, of course, but it was still present for a good 200 pages.