The Mysterious Benedict Society (The Mysterious Benedict Society #1) by Trenton Lee Stewart
Published: Little Brown Books for Young Readers (2008), Paperback, 512pg
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
“Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?”
When this peculiar ad appears in the newspaper, dozens of children enroll to take a series of mysterious, mind-bending tests. (And you, dear reader, can test your wits right alongside them.) But in the end just four very special children will succeed. Their challenge: to go on a secret mission that only the most intelligent and resourceful children could complete. To accomplish it they will have to go undercover at the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, where the only rule is that there are no rules.
As our heroes face physical and mental trials beyond their wildest imaginations, they have no choice but to turn to each other for support. But with their newfound friendship at stake, will they be able to pass the most important test of all?
Welcome to the Mysterious Benedict Society. (from Amazon)
I spotted the cover of The Mysterious Benedict Society around, oh, a year or so ago. It looked interesting, but it was in hardback and I don’t have that kind of moola to spend. I decided to wait until it came out in paperback, and then I had to wait until it was actually in stock at a bookstore around here and then I had to rediscover it because I had actually forgotten about it. Whoops. Anyway, I bought it last weekend, and I’m glad I did. It was a lot of fun!
The front inside cover compares The Mysterious Benedict Society to Blue Balliett, Lemony Snicket, and Roald Dahl. That is a LOT of comparison to live up to, lemme tell ya. I don’t entirely agree with it: TMBS’s not as wacky as Roald Dahl’s books, nor is it as depressing (or wacky) as Lemony Snicket’s books. It’s just a little too wacky for Blue Balliett books, but I suppose in tone it fits most closely to her. (If you haven’t read Chasing Vermeer yet, by the way, get to it. I loved it, and you will too.) It very much comes off like a first book trying to find its voice, and while that’s not a bad thing at all, it makes for a little awkward reading. But, er, unfortunately it’s not Mr. Stewart’s first book, so I don’t know why there was such a problem.
For the most part, I enjoyed the book. I liked the characters, I liked (almost all) the writing, and I liked the story. I have a huge soft spot for orphans, and this book’s got a ton of them. I also have a huge soft spot for kids with gumption, and TMBS has a lot of them, as well. Also I like secret societies and boarding schools and interesting gadgets. So I was nearly giddy with excitement for the majority of the book. It was fun!
The story is nearly completely ridiculous, but in a good way. Mysterious messages being beamed through television and radio that no-one can hear? AWESOME. Sounds kinda like an X-Files episode, or a BBC kids show. The characters, even the adult ones, are unusual and interesting and quite kind and sweet (except for the baddies, of course). I was glad that Mr. Benedict had reservations about using children in his plan, as it seems that a lot of books where adults use kids somehow don’t think of that. The kids probably wouldn’t mind either way, but it makes the character more likable and real. Anyway, moving on.
The story drags a bit in the middle, and in some ways I think if Mr. Stewart had cranked the weirdness level up it would have actually been better. Not that it needed to be more farcical, just that around the middle, in the bit that dragged, it kind of…lost it’s creativeness. It became stagnant and less zany and I was bored. Luckily it picked itself back up in the last part, or else I would have been extremely disappointed (and bored as well).
There’s some reader interaction with puzzles and codes, but not as much as in The Name of This Book is Secret, say. And unfortunately some of the puzzles can only be solved by the characters because they have inside knowledge that we don’t, rather like a Hercule Poirot story. It’s not a horrible thing, but I’ve never like that about Hercule Poirot and so I was a little disgruntled.
By the end of the book I was smiling like a loon, and the happy ending totally made my day. There was also enough room left open for a sequel or two, which of course there is. I do plan on reading them, as I want to find out what happens to everyone.
Rereading over this review I do feel a bit mean, as it wasn’t a horrible book by any stretch of the imagination and I did very much enjoy reading it. I probably was just a little bit too nitpicky, but I hope that doesn’t discourage anyone from reading The Mysterious Benedict Society because I think you’ll like it!
Read: March 2009