Riddles. Magic. Adventure. Fun. National Book Award Finalist M.T. Anderson captures all these and more in his new novel for middle-grade readers, The Game of Sunken Places.
Set in rural Vermont, the story follows two young friends, Gregory and Brian, as they set off on a vacation quest that takes them through time, magical forest and underground worlds—and pits them against each other in a game of life and death. Unbeknownst to the boys, their seemingly innocuous invitation to visit an eccentric uncle in the country is actually a ploy to involve them in an enchanted game—where trolls tell riddles on bridges, phantom hunting parties charge through the woods, giant ogres guard underground cities and the winning team gets to inhabit a magical mountain.
The genesis for The Game of Sunken Places came from Anderson's own love of enchanted stories, such as the Narnia Series and the books of Susan Cooper and E. Nesbitt. "I really loved how in those books, you're taken out of a context that you're used to and you see the things that you don't normally see," Anderson tells BookPage from his home near Boston. "But more importantly, I loved the concept that kids in blazers and droopy kneesocks could save the world."
In Anderson's novel, the two boys—best friends—realize they each have unique and important talents that they can use together to survive. Brian, a quiet but bright boy, sees the world with an uncanny sense of awareness, which on more than one occasion saves him and his friend from disaster. Gregory, the gregarious friend, uses his irrepressible sense of humor and sometimes off-color candor to catch the many otherworldly beings they encounter off-guard.
The author based the characters of The Game of Sunken Places on someone he knows quite well. "The boys are different aspects of me—and hopefully different aspects of anyone who reads the book," says Anderson. "In a refracted way, everything I write comes out of my life, but oftentimes, it would be unrecognizable to anyone but me. The intense friendship between the boys feels very much to me like my adolescence—when the whole world was out there, ready to peer into."
The author of three previous novels and two picture books, Anderson is best known for Feed, an imaginative look at a future world where advertising messages are pumped directly into human brains through a computer chip. This biting satire of consumerism captured a National Book Award nomination in 2002 and won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for young adult fiction. The Game of Sunken Places was actually written before Feed but never published. "I wrote it over several years, then put it away for several more years," says the author, "but I was always excited about it." After the success of Feed, the author decided to pull The Game of Sunken Places out of hibernation. "I looked at it, retyped it and made the jokes better—and turned it around in about four months," Anderson recalls. If that seems like a short amount of time to write a novel, it shouldn't; Feed only took two months to write and his picture books took only a day. Nevertheless, says the author, "It takes about six months to see what really works."
Anderson began his writing career when he was quite young. "From when I was little, I always knew it was something I wanted to do," Anderson admits. "Writers are always suffering from a certain sort of dysfunction when it comes to their careers. I guess you could say it's a weakness I've always had." As a teenager, Anderson wrote "things I would've called novels" and sent them to publishers. "At least it got me used to the series of rejections that come along with a writer's life," he says.
After studying at Harvard, Cambridge and Syracuse universities, he took several short-lived jobs until he landed a position as an editorial assistant at a publishing house. There, in addition to making coffee and spending hours at the copy machine, Anderson cranked out his first book, Thirsty, a vampire story which he dropped onto the desk of his boss, the editor-in-chief, one day to give her something to read in her spare time. The ploy worked: within a year, the book was published and his career as a writer had begun.
Anderson has several future projects in the works, including a historical novel set in the 18th century and a book for middle-grade readers about a whale on stilts. Copyright 2004 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2005 Spring
Gregory and Brian find themselves unwilling participants in a role-playing game, itself a mask for a larger struggle between two supernatural peoples. The writing is lively and often irreverent, and while individual scenes are often dramatically effective, the plot feels too improvised and thus less than suspenseful. Sleator's [cf2]Interstellar Pig[cf1] is a much more satisfying tale of high-stakes gaming. Copyright 2005 Horn Book Guide Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2004 June #2
When wise-cracking Gregory and brainy Brian go to Vermont to visit Gregory's "strange . . . [p]robably insane" Uncle Max, they "couldn't know what an adventure it would be." Once at Grendle Manor and properly clad in knickerbockers, the two boys find a mildewed game board--the eponymous Game of Sunken Places--that mirrors the local landscape and takes on a real and potentially lethal life of its own. A sinister stranger, a genial troll, a fussy, very non-human game coordinator, and numerous monsters variously aid and block their progress through the game, which, it seems, is central to a cosmic contest between two spirit races. Sound confusing? It is, and purposely so. Gregory and Brian bumble and puzzle their way along with the reader, gradually discovering the many overlaid constructs and realities that make up the game. As with so many games, the fun of the novel is not in the ending but in the getting there, and readers willing to suspend every ounce of disbelief will be rewarded by this smart, consciously complex offering that never panders to its middle-grade audience. (Fiction. 10-14) Copyright Kirkus 2004 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Media Connection Reviews 2004 October
Brian and Gregory accept an invitation to stay at "Uncle" Max's grand but strange mansion; Uncle Max was a best friend of Gregory's uncle who had died and left Prudence, Gregory's cousin, without a home. So at 17, Prudence went to Vermont to care for "Uncle" Max and his home. Arriving at the mansion, the boys are directed to dress for dinner in the clothes laid out on the bed. The butler is charged with bringing in the suitcases and burning them in the furnace. Before dinner, the boys find their room and enrobe in gray tweed knickerbockers, matching cape, and stiff shirts with very starchy collars. In the corner of the nursery, their room, they stumble upon The Game of Sunken Places. This board game morphs them into players of a bigger than life Middle Ages adventure where characters vacillate between medieval garb and 18th-century coattails. Entering the game, the boys travel separate paths to engage attitudinal trolls, warring kingdoms, a city full of gargoyles, and a huge warty eyeless ogre with two huge nostrils dripping over a mouth guarded by pointed yellow tusks. Purchase this entangling read for the adventurous middle schooler. Recommended. Donna Steffan, Education Consultant, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Division of Libraries, Technology and Community Learning, Madison, Wisconsin Â© 2004 Linworth Publishing, Inc.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2004 July #2
Anderson serves up a fantasy thriller that neatly combines the techno-savvy of his Feed, the horror themes of Thirsty and the sharp humor of Burger Wuss. Thirteen-year-olds Gregory Buchanan and Brian Thatz have accepted an invitation to stay with Gregory's Uncle Max in Vermont over their school's two-week October break. Gregory does not know Max well (he is actually the adoptive father of Max's now-adult cousin, Prudence) but warns Brian that he's "probably insane. He lives in kind of a different world from the rest of us. You know? The kind of world where electricity is a lot of invisible spiders." True to horror-story convention, locals urge the boys to turn back as they approach his estate. Max is indeed ominous, and their reception bizarre (why do the servants incinerate the boys' clothing?). Right away, the boys find a board game (from which the novel takes its title) that seems to depict Max's estate-but soon new places begin appearing on the board. Gregory and Max learn they are participants in a high-stakes Game run by the so-called Speculant; with characters like an axe-wielding troll and an infuriated elf, portentous place names (the Ceremonial Mound, the Hill of Shadow) hard-to-discover rules and riddles, the Game proceeds like an elaborate computer fantasy adventure. Anderson keeps the tension high even as he cuts it with colorful prose and an insightful motif involving the boys' friendship. Dexterously juggling a seemingly impossible profusion of elements, the author builds to a climactic series of surprises that, exploding like fireworks, will almost certainly dazzle readers. Ages 9-12. (July) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal Reviews 2004 September
Gr 5-9-Thirteen-year-olds Brian Thatz and Gregory Buchanan accept a cryptic invitation to visit Gregory's weird Uncle Max and cousin Prudence in Vermont. Uncle Max, a Victorian-era throwback, greets them in a horse-drawn carriage and dispatches them to his creepy old manor house. Once there, he burns the boys' luggage and everything in it, forcing them into the heavy tweed knickerbockers and starched shirt collars he prefers. Then an all-consuming game begins, though the hapless boys are not informed of it. It subjects them to every fiend Anderson can imagine, from bridge trolls and ogres to nefarious man-monsters in billowing cloaks. The boys are confused, and readers are likely to be as well. Anderson's prose is deliberately disorienting and chaotic, and his characters are quick-witted and engaging. This is an action-packed adventure, but the convoluted story line, abrupt scene changes, and unstable landscape will not be everyone's cup of tea.-Catherine Threadgill, Charleston County Public Library, SC Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
VOYA Reviews 2004 June
Joan Aiken meets Douglas Adams in this well-done, humorous fantasy from the talented author of Burger Wuss (Candlewick, 1999/VOYA December 1999) and Feed (2002/VOYA December 2002). Gregory Buchanan, a headlong sort of boy much given to spouting nonsense, gets an invitation to spend some time in Vermont with his eccentric uncle, Max, and his cousin, Prudence. He asks his decidedly more cautious friend, Brian, to come with him. Uncle Max lives in a Victorian mansion that readers soon discover is shunned by the locals, and he both dresses and requires the boys to dress in Victorian-era costume. Soon Gregory and Brian find themselves hip deep in a mysterious, scary, and ancient game played by supernatural opponents. They spend several days tramping through the wilds of rural Vermont, vanquishing-and sometimes befriending-monsters, discovering secret underground cities, and generally fleeing for their lives. What makes this novel special is Anderson's skill at wordplay. Gregory is given to all sorts of bizarre and off-kilter statements, for example, as when he claims that his uncle "lives in kind of a different world from the rest of us. You know? The kind of world where electricity is a lot of invisible spiders. The kind of world where there's organ music that gets louder when he eats refined sugar." Although somewhat arbitrary and picaresque in its structure, the novel never ceases to entertain, and the ending is genuinely unexpected. The book should strongly appeal to any teen interested in an original fantasy adventure.-Michael Levy 4Q 4P M J Copyright 2004 Voya Reviews.