The Game of Sunken Places
By M.T. Anderson
Scholastic, 2004

The Game of Sunken Places is a young adult fantasy novel. It is the first book in the Norumbegan Quartet series, and is one of the better YA fantasy novels of recent years.

Thirteen-year-old Gregory receives an unexpected invitation for he and his friend Brian to visit his eccentric uncle over winter break. They don't know what to expect, but it certainly wasn't a vacation in the mid-1800s. They are met at the station by a horse and buggy which drives then to a rather gothic-looking mansion, and immediately upon arrival their luggage is confiscated and they are provided with respectable tweeds and Knickerbockers. The uncle is strict, moody, and completely at sea when it comes to dealing with teenagers (and he appears to have an unfounded and unexplained dislike of Brian). The butler and maid are far from friendly, and often downright rude. The only friendly person in the house is Gregory's cousin, a young woman in her early twenties. While cousin Prudence is perfectly pleasant, she doesn't have any particular interest in the boys, and spends most of her time floating around doing Victorian-lady type stuff.

Which would make for a very unhappy holiday, if they had time to worry about it. On the first day they find an old game-board, and on the second day they discover that it is one of those magical Jumanji-type games, and that they have apparently started playing. It leads them into the Vermont woods, where they discover trolls, elves, and underground cities... and other players, who want them dead quite badly.

This is hardly a new idea, of course, and is reminiscent of Jumanji, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Narnia, and dozens of other books. What makes this story stand out is a mix of dark humor and a twisty plot, along with some very good early pacing of the plot, although because the story follows the structure of playing a game it does, eventually, fall slightly into the trap of an ODTAA plot, although not to the extent that many fantasies do. For most of the book just trying to figure out what's going on overrides the sequential hoop-jumping -- and there's a lot that needs figuring.

M.T. Anderson has a very wide range, and I haven't read all that many of his books. However, this is my favorite of those that I have read. It keeps his sense of humor and is a fairly light read, but is a 'serious' plot rather than one of his wacky comedies. He adds in a good bit of very dark supernatural elements, and paints the various settings very well. Reading this brought to mind Pan's Labyrinth and some of Diana Wynne Jones later books for older children.

Surprisingly, this novel seems to have gotten a number of poor reviews. I personally found that at times the characters were just a bit too silly for the world they were in, and I did not particularly enjoy the very classic view of dark elves as completely alien and emotionless, but the general complaints seem to be a bit more vague. The most common comments seem to be that it was a bit too complex and hard to follow, and that readers had a hard time getting into the story. I did not find this to be the case at all, and found the narrative to be a bit easier to get into than, for example The Golden Compass. However, it does require a bit more attention and focus than The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, which appear to be the current standards in YA fantasy.

The second book in the series is The Suburb Beyond the Stars.

ISBN 10: 0439416612
ISBN 13: 9780439416610.
AR Book level: 4.6.

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