I don't give too many things five stars and I had to think this one over a bit, but upon reflection, I think it deserves it. Although you do have to read the first two not just for the backstory, but to see why it rates higher, the way it's more developed, the writing more mature.
While the first book had a focus on us getting to know Gregor and the Underland, the second on Gregor's growth emotionally and mentally, this one is all about disillusionment, the realities of politics and human greed, and Gregor truly leaving most of his childhood behind.
The Underlanders, for all that they look different are, inside, no different from the rest of humanity. That's the lesson I came out with, anyway, and it's a good one. In this latest quest, any remaining illusions Gregor (or the readers) might've had about Underland are irreversibly shattered. The human Underlanders are mostly decent people, the same as the rest of humanity as we know it, but there are enough bad apples in power there to make them all look bad, the same as here in the Overland. There's prejudice, blind, unthinking hatred, rifts between families, murder, malicious deception, pure greed, and it all gives the story such a good feel of reality. In a world filled with giant creatures, that touch of reality grounds the story and makes it easier for the reader to relate to, makes the suspension of disbelief much easier to maintain.
A plague is mowing its way through the warmbloods of Underland and yet another prophecy says that Gregor and Boots must be there to stop it. Only this time, their mother isn't letting them go alone.
Her inclusion, and the way she's yanked suddenly from the story by contracting the plague, I found particularly interesting. Gregor is afraid of how it will make him look, the "warrior" with his mother hovering over him. And then she's not there and he's on his own again, put in the position of rescuing her, as he once had done for his father. I see this as the final severing of Gregor's ties to his childhood. He's truly the caretaker here, his own person with his mother out of the picture for almost the entire story. And he fills the roll well.
Gregor's an old hand at questing now and knows how to deal with it. Yes, he makes a few mistakes along the way, but that's a lack of experience and wisdom. Both of which he gains at a heavy price. And throughout the journey he reinforces in his own mind (and ours) that he's not a child anymore, no longer one of the "pups." It's something that you can see visibly saddens the adults around him, but it's also something they accept, because what's done is done and this was necessary.
The ending isn't truly a surprise, not if you read one of the characters right in the beginning, but it's disheartening and you can really feel for the ones who were betrayed. All of them, even the non-humans. It's also a good bit of social commentary, sobering when you look at it.
Gregor's return to the Overland and the problems left for him and his family aren't glossed over, I was happy to see. In fact, things are worse off now than before he left. It paves the way towards a decision I thought he was wise to make. But I suppose we'll have to wait for the next book to see how that one pans out.
The writing continues to improve with each book, as does the pacing and the character development. As Gregor matures, so does the text. He's twelve now, at the end of this story. Twelve fast going on thirty, and while you're sad for him, it's what has to happen, and what will undoubtedly get him through whatever comes next in the Underland.