The Suburb Beyond the Stars, by M. T. Anderson (Scholastic, 2010, middle grade, 223 pages). Warning: This is the sequel to The Game of Sunken Places (2004, new paperback edition released this May), and my review spoils that first book more than a little. Sorry.
So don't read further if you don't want spoilers. To occupy the spoiler space, here's a short movie/trailer for The Suburb Beyond the Stars:
After Brian won the Game of Sunken Places, he and his friend Gregory inherited the responsibility of designing the next Game--a challenge whose outcome would help decide which of two supernatural races would win the right to inhabit the earth. But their peaceful work on a noir detective mystery is disrupted when a demonic monster baby creature tries to kill Brian on the subway. A handy electrified third rail takes care of that little problem, but much worse is ahead.
Up in Vermont, where the two boys had played their own Game (designed with medieval flair by Gregory's cousin, Prudence) things have gone haywire. When the two head up north themselves to find out why Prudence has dropped out of touch, they find a sinister suburb has suddenly sprung up in the woods around her home. And it soon becomes clear that this suburb (which is a really, really sinister place, worse than the one in A Wrinkle in Time) is the work of the Thusser. They are the bad guys in the great Game, and they've decided they don't want to play anymore. They want the world. Now. And the new suburb is the launching place for their plans.
Brian and Gregory, reunited with their troll friend Kalgrash (my favorite troll!), slowly figure out what's happening. But stopping the Thusser is pretty darn tricky--they're your basic incredibly powerful, superhuman-type bad guys. The only beings capable of putting them in their place are the incredibly powerful, superhuman-type "good" guys--the Norembegans, the elven-esque race who are the opposing team in the Game. Unfortunately, the Norembegans are playing by the rules, and aren't on earth anymore, so it's hard to get a hold of them....
The Suburb Beyond the Stars combines genuinely disturbing, occasionally icky, creepiness with levity and interesting characters. There's never a dull moment, but yet the story doesn't feel rushed. I wouldn't recommend this one to fantasy fans seeking moments of numinous filled beauty, but I would press it into the hands of those who want well-written adventurous boys being brave in the face of fantastical danger.
It's a better book, I think, than the first in the series, The Game of Sunken Places (here are my brief thoughts on it). That one reads a tad like a fantasy role playing adventure, although it is not unenjoyable; I found this one is less cliched, much creepier, and much wittier. Anderson is maybe a tad too self-conscious of the witty parts in places, but it manages to stay on the straight side of farce. And because this second book focuses almost exclusively on Brian, the more interesting of the two boys, I felt less distanced from the characters than I did with book one. It's not absolutely necessary to read the first book first, but I think it's a good idea, in part because that's where you meet Kalgrash for the first time. And for those who dislike serieses (serii?) be warned--the ending of The Suburb Beyond the Stars is a pause, not a conclusion....
In general, I do not give positive reviews to books that use the word "eldritch" with a (more or less) straight face. This book, however, is an exception.
I am rather curious, though, about the thinking behind the cover. It looks very old-fashioned (brave boys in danger in the late 1950s/1960s), and doesn't give much obvious clue about what the book is about.
Other thoughts at Kids Lit and Wandering Librarians.