Thirteen-year-old Gregory's eccentric Uncle Max has invited Gregory - and a friend of his choosing - for a visit during fall break. Gregory chooses his best friend, Brian, who joins him happily, hoping for an adventure.
From the time they arrive in Vermont, strange things happen. A spooky man stares at them, a shopkeeper tells them to turn around and go home. Uncle Max is bizarre - he secretly burns the boys' suitcases, and then gives them knickerbockers and tweed jackets to wear. The boys explore the house, and they come across an old board game. The game board shows a bird's-eye view of Uncle Max's mansion and the vast grounds around it, and the boys decide it might be fun to play it.
From there they embark upon a mysterious and exciting, often frightening, adventure, as they encounter axe-wielding trolls, riddles, hidden caverns, and a blind, bloodthirsty ogre with a disturbingly acute sense of smell. The game is confusing, the rules unclear, and the danger certain. While the boys do not entirely understand the point of the game, or even how to win it, it is clear that time is running out.
Despite the fact that this book possesses many fictional elements that I enjoy (a mysterious game, adventures in otherworldly places, kids risking their lives against incredible odds to achieve a goal), I found it was disjointed and never really held my attention for very long. There was very little character development, and I kept confusing which boy was which because, despite the fact that they are described as being polar opposites, they felt so much alike to me. And they exclaimed things like, "We may be being chased!" which didn't sound much like anything a teenage boy would say. The boys wear their knickerbockers and tweed without much complaint, and beyond a question or two about their belongings, they never make any fuss at all about everything disappearing.
There were long, tedious passages describing the various wonders the boys encounter during the game, but as they really didn't relate to matters at hand, I found my attention wandering again and again. I never really bought into the fact that the boys were risking their lives to play a game in which they really had no stake whatsoever. Who cared who won the game, when we knew so little about the two sides? I certainly didn't. Why would the boys risk their lives to try to win it? I listen to a lot of audiobooks, but I have never found my mind wandering off to other things as much as it did with this one.
M.T. Anderson's Feed is one of my favorite YA novels of all time, and perhaps I went into this one with unrealistically high expectations in the light of my fondness for that book. I do think this book would appeal to fans of The Spiderwick Chronicles and the 100 Cupboards series, but for older readers (teens and up), I recommend reading Feed instead.
The Game of Sunken Places by M.T. Anderson; narrated by Mark Cashman (Listening Library, 2008)
Also reviewed at:
21 Pages: "The author mentioned in an interview that he didn’t plan for the story to be a mystery or have any big reveals - and that’s what it felt like."
365 Days of Books: "I would recommend this to middle school readers who like solving puzzles and don't mind the creepiness and tension of a knife wielding villain chasing you over the rain slicked roof of a mansion."
Things I Finished: "... this was charming and fun. And I'm pleased to say that the twist at the end caught me totally off guard"