29 June 2009

Review: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

I've been trying for two weeks to write a review of The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, but I invariably wind up with three pages that say nothing at all. Then I start over and the same thing happens again. It's driving me a little bit mad.

The book is a children's or young adult adventure novel with elements of detective fiction and science fiction. It's a kind of hybrid I suppose. It's a bit young for young adult but too convoluted for children's fiction. It doesn't really feel like an adventure novel, but the four main characters go on a quest that leads them through all sorts of dangers and tests of their abilities.

To say more about the story itself, though: the four main characters – Reynie Muldoon, Sticky Washington, Kate Wetherall, and Constance Contraire are the only children smart and lucky enough to pass a series of tests designed to find gifted children "looking for special opportunities." The special opportunity, it turns out, is a chance to act as spies for Mr Benedict at The Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened. Mr Benedict believes that the institute is the front for a dastardly plot by the evil Mr Curtain to bring down the government and seize control for himself. Because only children can attend the institute, the gifted children's abilities have to complement on another; where one child is weak, another is strong.

Opening paragraph:
In a city called Stonetown, near a port called Stonetown Harbor, a boy named Reynie Muldoon was preparing to take an important test. It was the second test of the day – the first had been in an office across town. After that one he was told to come here, to the Monk Building on Third Street, and to bring nothing but a single pencil and a single rubber eraser, and to arrive no later than one o'clock. If he happened to be late, or bring two pencils, or forget his eraser, or in any other way deviate from the instructions, he would not be allowed to take the test and that would be that. Reynie, who very much wanted to take it, was careful to follow the instructions. Curiously enough, these were the only ones given. He was not told how to get to the Monk Building, for example, and had found it necessary to ask directions to the nearest bus stop, acquire a schedule from a dishonest bus driver who tried to trick him into paying for it, and walk several blocks to catch the Third Street bus. Not that any of this was difficult for Reynie Muldoon. Although he was only eleven years old, he was quite used to figuring things out for himself.
The trouble I have in writing about this book is that although I enjoyed it a lot, there are a great many things I didn't like. In order to get a handle on that, I decided to read some other reviews that people have written about the book, but I found myself agreeing as much with the 5 star reviews as the 2 star ones. Sigh. What to say?

I enjoyed the story and the characters very much, but had serious reservations about both. The story is in many ways completely absurd, the characters (at least the bad ones) often one-note. The ending is tied up with the prettiest of happy-ending bows. It's a fun story, so long as you don't think too hard about it.

Trenton Lee Stewart is the author of two already published books in the Mysterious Benedict Society series with a third forthcoming this year. He's also published another book called Flood Summer, which I believe is adult literature. If he has a website, I haven't found it.

Stewart, Trenton Lee. The Mysterious Benedict Society. New York: Little, Brown, 2008.
Finished: 21 June 2009
Rating: 3 of 5 rules (but there are no rules)
This was my 3rd book in June and my 20th in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

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