As a reader, I find M.T. Anderson a bit all over the map. I tend to see his strongest work as aimed at the older crowd, while his children’s novels tend to leave me a bit cold. That was the case with The Game of Sunken Places, a children’s fantasy involving two boys playing a Game of high stakes involving trolls, ogres, etc. M.T. Anderson hadn’t done enough with the relatively “humdrum” concepts and his plotting and characters were a bit muddled. I’m sorry to say that I have the same reaction to his second book in the series, The Suburb Beyond the Stars.
The same two boys, Brian and Gregory, are at work designing the next version of the Game (thanks to Brian having won the last time in book one), but their work is interrupted by a murderous attack on Brian by a monster, and by the disappearance of their cousin Prudence, who had been living in Vermont at the scene of the previous game.
When they arrive in Vermont to find out what happened to Prudence, they find the woods of the Game have been turned into a suburban development with quite the dark side: some of the kids are out of Village of the Damned; the real estate agent is dead (but that isn’t stopping him from pushing deals); people are disappearing from their homes; monsters roam the streets; Prudence is nowhere to be found; and the seriously creepy Gelt the Winnower (M.T. Anderson’s best creation in this series, along with Kalgrash the Troll) is adding a sense of the horrific. All of this seems to be leading to what may be the end of the human race.
As with The Game of Sunken Places, the plotting feels a bit disconnected, though not quite as bad. The kids do a lot of wandering around and talking, but there’s little sense of narrative cohesion to much of what they do. At one point, for instance, they struggle mightily to get somewhere, then don’t and just end up back where they were, making the whole scene feel a bit arbitrary. Also, the balance between humor and darkness never quite gels, and as with The Game of Sunken Places, the sense of menace and doom that is mentioned via the language is never really felt in the gut (save for the scenes with Gelt, though that ends a bit anti-climactically). The language itself doesn’t help, as the sentences are pretty simple, sometimes too much so in a row.
The characters aren’t particularly rich either. Gregory especially is a bit one-note and starts to wear on the reader (at least this one) by the end. In neither book did I find myself particularly concerned about what would happen to them. On the other hand, ironically, the two not-quite-living characters are livelier. Kalgrash the Troll is more fully realized and more fully alive, while the seeming-zombie of a real estate agent adds a wonderful and too-short bit of humor (his pamphlet on moving into the new development is the best part of the book). Some of the other humor falls flat or is a bit too obvious (the suburban stuff, even for kids, might be a bit trite).
The lack of rich or fully-dimensional characters and the streamlined quick plot pace are pretty common attributes of lesser books aimed at younger readers, but this series just isn’t compelling enough plot- or character-wise to compensate for its weaknesses, and with the suburban humor and Gelt’s tinge of horror, I’m not sure M.T. Anderson is really aiming at that younger set anyway (say, 4th or 5th graders). For those reasons, and because there is so much good children’s fantasy out there (including Anderson’s own OCTAVIAN NOTHING novels, which are absolutely stunning), The Suburb Beyond the Stars hasn’t changed my recommendation to skip this series. Perhaps he’ll win me over with book three, the beginning of which is where Suburb ends.