The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, illustrations by Carson Ellis, 496 pp, RL 5

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, illustrations by Carson Ellis (best known for her cover art for her husband's band The Decemberists and illustrator of Lemony Snicket's picture book, The Composer is Dead) is the wildly popular first book in what is soon to be a trilogy with books two and three being illustrated by Diane Sudyka, another wonderful artist with a style very similar to Ellis'. There is a fabulous website for the book called the The Curiosity Chronicle.

This book begins with Reynard, or Reynie, Muldoon, an orphan who has decided to answer a newspaper add that reads, "ARE YOU A GIFTED CHILD LOOKING FOR SPECIAL OPPORTUNITIES?" At this point, any reader who finds this add intriguing, especially any reader who feels that he or she would also answer this add, will plunge into this hefty book, headlong and happily, I suspect. I know that the eleven-year-old me, a bookworm on the social fringe with notions of specialness, would have gobbled this book up. The gifted children in question are invited to take a test. The four who pass, Reynie, Sticky (George) Washington, Kate Wetherall and Constance Contraire, find themselves in the presence of the mysterious Mr Benedict, a narcoleptic, and his small coterie of asisstants - Rhonda Kazembe, Milligan and Number Two. Mr Benedict welcomes them warmly into his home, gives them a secret mission and cryptic advice and thanks them for taking on such a dangerous task.

What is the danger and what is the task? Although it mostly spoken of in passive terms, the "Emergency," as it is generally referred to, fills the headlines of the papers and the news broadcasts every day. The Emergency seems to be a general decline of western civilization with "the school systems, the budget, the pollution, the crime, the weather" and everything in a "complete mess and citizens everywhere were clamoring for a major - no, a dramatic - improvement in government." The Emergency and what, or who, is causing it is at the heart of Mr Benedict's research and what he hopes to defeat. The task he gives the children is to infiltrate a school, The Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (L.I.V.E.), being run by a reclusive genius, Ledroptha Curtain, who just might be behind these drastic changes for the worse in the world. The Institute is on Nomansan Island (there are a handful of puns like this sprinkled throughout the book) and the children will be alone there with only a flashlight and Morse code as a means of communicating with Mr Benedict and his crew.

Ensconced in the school, the children are forced to learn ridiculous phrases by rote and follow absurd rules such as, "You can wear whatever you want, just so long as you have on trousers, shoes and a shirt. You can bathe as often as you like or not at all, provided you're clean everyday in class, " and so on. There are Messengers, children who are at the top of their class and have "special privileges," and Executives, who are older children who have been promoted from the position of Messenger and keep order in the school. There are also Helper, mute, down trodden adults who appear to be fearful and sad as they go about the duties of keeping the Institute in order. As Reynie and Sticky move to the top of their class and the children begin to unravel the mysteries surrounding the special privileges and the secrets being kept by Mr Curtain, they discover what is at the source of the Emergency and what Mr Curtain's plans are for ending it and taking control of the world.

As some of you know, I have been struggling with this book for months now. Reading in fits and starts, I found it necessary to re-read certain passages in order to pick up threads or try to make sense of obtuse plot points. I am sorry to say that I did not enjoy this book. While I have reviewed one other book that I did not enjoy, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, I did so because I felt like adults were rushing out to buy this beautiful book for the children in their lives without realizing what the story was really about. Trenton Lee Stewart's The Mysterious Benedict Society requires no such warning on my part. His book is innovative, unique (although a bit derivative, if that's possible) and I have no doubt that my complaints with the book are addressed and improved upon in the subsequent books in this series. I would and often do suggest this book to customers who are avid readers, approximately ages 8 - 12 and seem to be drawn in by the cover art, just as I was. And, I know for a fact that there are many kids and parents out there who thoroughly enjoyed this book. There is something for both boy and girl readers to connect with and appreciate.

Readers who like this book almost always also enjoy the Secret Series by Pseudonymous Bosch. You can read my review of the first book in the series, The Name of this Book is Secrethere.

Readers who like this book might also enjoy:

For mysteries slightly less weighty, Blue Balliett's Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3 and The Calder Game might be of interest.

Elise Broach has also written two wonderful mysteries, Masterpiece and Shakespeare's Secret.

Dale Peck's two Drift House books, which I loved, that combine time travel and historical fiction and, of course, lots of action.

For mysteries with some historical fiction and what I consider excellent writing, check out Frances Hardinge's Fly By Night and Linda Archer-Buckley's superb Time Travelers Trilogy.


Jeremy said…
Oh, no real disappointment from your loyal readers. Of course it would be better (for you) if you had looooved it, but sometimes it's just not the right thing at the right time. For me it's often that way with bands -- I have two close friends with excellent musical taste (by my judgement) who have the same all-time favourite band -- Wilco -- and even though we like most of the same music, I just can't get into Wilco, despite trying very hard for many years.

With picture books, I have a strong aversion to rhymes and most talking animals, which precludes enjoyment of 80% of the stuff that gets released, including many that are adored by reviewers I otherwise trust. When you do reviews of fairy tale books, I generally just skip them, knowing that there will be others I find more interesting (to me) later.

I wonder if one of the reasons this book didn't resonate with you is that it has no element of true fantasy (magic, alternate worlds), yet it's not particularly realistic either -- the bad guys are total caricatures, and some of the action is so comic-book-silly that you find yourself having to sort of suspend your disbelief. Maybe a bit like the first parts of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where you're not sure if it's trying to be "real" or fantasy, at least until you meet the Ooompa Loompas.

I strongly disagree about the characters being two-dimensional, but I think that's partly because I read the second book too, and some of the relationships get fleshed out further (as you suspected). I can't remember if I felt that way after the first one. As I read your review, I was thinking of what might be the opposite -- maybe the Penderwicks, where nothing ever really happens, but tens of thousands of words are spent on describing the characters and their relationships.

We listened to the first few chapters of MBS in the car yesterday and I just LOVE them. The backgrounds of the characters getting teased out, the tests, the puzzles, the dynamic that starts to form with the team of kids, the confusion and mystery of it all...and it's hilarious at times -- we were all laughing. However, in discussing your review with my wife (who also loved the books), we remembered that in the last half of the book, it drags and gets a bit dull when the kids are at the school.
Tanya said…
You are so right about MBS existing in this middle ground of a realistic setting with (somewhat) unrealistic characters and plot point. I wonder if there is a name for that genre. I have to admit, now that I have finished the book and the review, I find myself wondering about those kids and what they get up to in the next book. If my library had it on audio I know I'd listen to it even if I had no plans to review it. You are the second parent who has said that MBS is excellent on audio. And, I also think that listening vs. reading a book affects one's opinion of it, too.

That's funny that you have a thing about talking animals. That really does rule out a lot of kidlit for you!

Thanks for your thoughts on this book. I struggle when I don't enjoy a book and it helps to know what other people's feelings are.

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