The Empire of Gut and Bone is the third book of the Norumbegan Quartet by M.T. Anderson, coming after The Game of Sunken Places and its sequel The Suburb Beyond the Stars. Unfortunately, it has many of the same problems as those first two books, which led to my ranking them relatively poorly. Which is a shame, because there are some good ideas at the core of this series, such as this book’s setting, and Anderson has shown himself to be capable of simply great work in the Octavian Nothing books.
At the end of The Suburb Beyond the Stars, the two main characters, Brian and Gregory — along with the automaton troll named Kalgrash whom Brian has befriended and Gregory hates — had stepped through a portal to find the Norumbegans, who had left Earth for New Norumbega. And here is the best part of Empire of Gut and Bone for the New Norumbega is apparently inside a strange and huge body. It appears to have the equivalent of organs and blood and veins, etc., though everything is different and so the equivalents are referred to as the familiar parts of a body though the characters are never quite sure that’s really what they are (there seem to be multiple hearts, for instance). This makes for some good travel methods and some great geographic names, such as a young female Norumbegan who is the “Daughter of the Duke of the Globular Colon.”
Soon after entering this strange new world, Brian and Gregory meet a group of automatons who have left the service of the Norumbegans and are trying to live their own lives. A nice touch is that the automatons are programmed never to say anything bad about the Norumbegans and so their rebellion is the politest ever on record. The boys then journey to the capital where they try and convince the Norumbegans to return to Earth and get rid of the evil Thussers who are taking over. Their presence in New Norumbega, though, soon sparks an actual war of rebellion between the automatons and their former masters, as well as deadly palatial infighting among the aristocrats of the Norumbegan hierarchy.
As mentioned, there are some good core ideas. The setting is ingenious and interesting, but it doesn’t really match its potential. The rebellion is funny due to the automatons having to work around their programming, but there are problems with consistency within their reactions. There are some funny lines throughout, more so via the omniscient narrator than Gregory’s purposeful humor, which seemed forced or overly scripted at times. It does move along quickly, though I wouldn’t say smoothly. And those areas, flawed as they are, would be the strengths.
The characters, as has been the case throughout, are pretty one-note. Gregory is meant to be annoying, but he needs to be annoying to the characters, not the reader (or at least, not simply annoying). Maybe the YA audience won’t find him so bad, but he wore on me quite quickly. Worse than annoying, he’s unlikable.
Brian, though his one note is understandable (convincing the Norumbegans to return to save Earth), he remains monotone and gets a bit dull. It’s a complaint his best friend Gregory makes, but again, it shouldn’t be dull or annoying to the reader as well.
The Norumbegans have basically degenerated to idiocy, which has a point, but here again, the author has to somehow make us care anyway and has to also find a way to not let the plot turn on their idiocy. I’d say Anderson fails in both cases — I couldn’t have cared less if they were wiped out by either the automatons or the Thussers and their stupidity just became annoyingly frustrating as so much of the plot was predicated on it — scene after scene. Again, maybe a YA reader will find it more funny than frustrating, but usually I can relate much better than this to a chidren’s book even while acknowledging its different focus. Here I just can’t.
The plot is somewhat more focused than those of the earlier books, but still feels somewhat disjointed and overly arbitrary with some internal-consistency problems. As one such example, the automatons, due to their programming, don’t see the capital in the shack-like state is really is. Instead, they see soaring spires, thick walls, huge beautiful buildings, etc. But at one point, they lob a shell right into the palace. The question, of course, is how do they manage to land it so precisely if they’re lobbing it over towering walls and spires that don’t actually exist? It’s a small example, but a representative one.
I will grant that young readers may find the humor — especially the belching or gas jokes — more funny than I do, may find Gregory less annoying, may be bothered less by inconsistencies, and just enjoy the ride. But there is so much good children’s fantasy literature out there without those flaws that it’s hard for me to recommend this in the hopes that they just don’t notice them. Instead, I recommend they read some other good children’s novels, such as Matthew Kirby’s The Clockwork Three or Suzanne Collins’ Gregor series, or some classics such as Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series, and when they get to an age where the Norumbegan Quartet is too young for them, they can turn to M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing duology, which is magnificent.