Friday, May 10, 2013

Middle-Grade Review: The Game of Sunken Places

The Game of Sunken Places by M.T. Anderson has been sitting on my to-be-read shelf for a long time, ever since my teen son read it a few years ago. I’ve heard good things about Anderson’s books, but this was the first one I ever read. It’s a mystery/fantasy story for middle-grade readers that is sort of like a cross between The Hardy Boys and Jumanji.

Thirteen-year old Gregory’s eccentric adopted uncle invites him and a friend to spend their school holiday at his house in Vermont. When Gregory and his best friend, Brian, arrive at the old mansion in the woods, they find that Uncle Max is even stranger than they’d thought. He and his home seem to exist in a different century, and Uncle Max insists that the boys dress in tweed knickers and stiff-collared shirts while they are visiting. Meals are quiet, formal affairs attended by servants at a big dining room table with Uncle Max and Gregory’s cousin, Prudence.

The boys poke around the deserted nursery and decide to ease their boredom with an old board game they find, The Game of Sunken Places. This game, though, is like none they’ve ever played before, and as they explore the area around the mansion, more and more spaces on the board become visible. This strange game takes them far beyond the game board and nursery, as they explore the woods around the house and discover things they never dreamed existed in real life – trolls, spirits, and other fearsome creatures – all locked in an age-old battle that now includes the two friends.

The tone of this novel, especially at the beginning, reminded me very much of old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries – two old friends discovering a mystery. It’s an us-against-the-world feeling, with plenty of good-natured joking between the boys (Gregory is especially prone to wise cracks). Then, the action turns more toward fantasy, as the mysteries surrounding Uncle Max and the old house turn out to involve all sorts of otherworldly beings, unseen worlds, and ancient conflicts.

I’m not a huge fan of fantasy normally (my son is), but I enjoyed this fast-paced and thoroughly unique story. It is filled with action, suspense, a good dose of humor to lighten the mood, and surprises around every corner. Kids who enjoy fantasy stories about strange creatures and other worlds will love this novel.

260 pages, Scholastic

(M.T. Anderson wrote another 3 books in this series, titled The Norumbegan Quartet)


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