The Empire of Gut and Bone
First things first: if you haven't already read the first two novels in M. T. Anderson's Norumbegan Quartet (THE GAME OF SUNKEN PLACES and THE SUBURB BEYOND THE STARS), (a) you should probably pick those up before diving into THE EMPIRE OF GUT AND BONE and (b) what in heaven's name are you waiting for?
This third installment in the series dives right in, following Brian, Gregory and the mechanical troll Kalgrash as they attempt to explore the Norumbegan Plain, the realm created by the elfin race during a previous iteration of the Game that has now grown entirely out of control. Even as they attempt to find the imperial palace so they can warn the Norumbegans about the danger to themselves (not to mention the entire world), the evil alien Thusser Horde is hard at work in the mountains of Vermont, their malignant version of suburbia quickly threatening civilization.
As Brian and Gregory quickly discover, however, even though the Norumbegans are, on paper, the "good guys" in this endless game, there's still trouble at the heart of their kingdom. They have essentially enslaved their mechanicals, programming them to see and feel only pride for the Norumbegans themselves, dismantling them when they grow too powerful or too emotionally demanding. Now the country's leaders are smack in the middle of a conflict with the Mannequin Resistance, who "'got tired of being told we weren't real, we'd never know love or the beauty of a baby's laugh or a puppy with a single tear in its eye.'"
Brian and Gregory, who have not been programmed, can see the land for what it really is --- a slum-like country of dilapidated palaces and disgusting rivers that run with…what? Best not to think too hard about that, the boys figure, when they realize that they're actually stuck inside something called the Great Body, which is pretty much what it sounds like. Trapped inside a monumental Body that is humanlike, but not quite, the Norumbegans have imposed every measure of control they can, given that they're susceptible at any moment to being washed away by any number of bodily fluids: "ichor, yellow bile, the hard aliment, the sublime aliment, lux effluvium, and brunch." When an influential Regent is assassinated, can Brian and Gregory continue their mission to save the world without getting bogged down in pesky elfin politics? Or brunch, for that matter?
As in the previous books in this series, M. T. Anderson's wit and storytelling skills are on equal display in THE EMPIRE OF GUT AND BONE. Gregory and Kalgrash's infernal (but very, very funny) bickering provides much of the comic relief, as does Anderson's storytelling style itself. Added to the already ripe dynamic is a new one --- the addition of a fetching female character, Gwynyfer, who, it seems, will play a significant role in the quartet's final chapter as well.
Although THE EMPIRE OF GUT AND BONE lacks some of the urgency and intensity of the earlier installments, it's clearly laying the groundwork for what promises to be a bang-up finale. Here's hoping we won't have to wait too long to read it!
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 1, 2011