The Story: The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart, is a trilogy consisting of The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, and The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma. To start, the trilogy’s four young protagonists – Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance – are chosen through a curious selection process and brought to the residence of Mr. Nicholas Benedict, a narcoleptic genius. Benedict is in a bind and must unravel a devious plot involving his Moriarty-esque arch nemesis, Ledropatha Curtain. Rather than possessing magical or super-human powers, the four members of the Mysterious Benedict Society (their own name for themselves) are gifted with perception, logic, and reason. Their talents, love, and loyalty are all put to the test in each book as danger comes close to home and they must journey both far and near to put a stop to Curtain’s schemes.
My Take: First, before I delve into the books themselves, I want to give a quick shout out to the illustrations in these books, which are courtesy of Carson Ellis who has also designed album cover art for The Decemberists (and also happens to be married to one of the band members – how cool is that?). Aside from the covers, the chapter title pages are rendered in black and white, but the lines are quite fluid and evoke a sense of ease. While the character renderings aren’t starkly realistic, they do provide justice to the characters they showcase and avoid looking like cartoons or caricatures. Likewise, the lettering for the table of contents and chapter headings is in a crisp, calligraphy-like style.
Overall, the illustrations here are top notch and definitely should be appreciated as elegantly simple, miniature works of art.
Now on to the books!
This trilogy is a tough little nut to crack in a very good way as it’s a mixture of coming-of-age, mystery, suspense, adventure, light quasi-science fiction, and independent reader lit. All of that was what chiefly attracted me to it aside from the size as each of these books weighs in at around 400 to 500 pages. Make no mistake – these are hefty volumes, especially for kids.
I really liked the concept that drives this trilogy since many books for kids feature people their age with supernatural or magical powers almost ad nauseam. There is nothing wrong with that but it’s nice to see a series that takes a different approach. Rather than having the four young protagonists possess superhuman abilities, they demonstrate strong resolve and intelligence. Reynie, Sticky (a.k.a. George Washington), Kate, and Constance are all smart, innovative kids from different backgrounds, proving people don’t have to share the same experiences, have wealth, or be highly educated in order to be important or valuable. Not only does this teach younger readers of the trilogy that everyone counts for something in the world, it also tells kids that being smart is cool.
Likewise, each of the young protagonists assumes a different role: Reynie serves as the group’s young leader, Sticky has some serious book smarts, Kate possesses bravery mingled with moxie, and Constance becomes the heart of the group despite her outspoken and bratty nature at times. Though each of the Society’s members possesses their own quirks and less-than-desirable traits, they have a deep-seated loyalty to each other and care for one another as if they were a biological family. They balance each other out and there are no weak links so each character is a joy to watch in action (or even inaction). Sure, they bicker and argue, but at the end of the day they work through their differences on a level that’s mature for their age and one that avoids inauthentic sentimentality. Again, this can inspire young readers to develop level-headed relationships and not let petty differences get in the way.
I actually have a hard time picking favorite characters among the young leads, which is a testament to how solid their development is. I love Reynie because he’s an underdog who sometimes lets his lack of faith in himself hold him back, but he always acts as the glue that keeps the group together. I love Sticky because he, too, suffers from low self-esteem even though he’s quite smart yet he doesn’t go around shouting his IQ from the rooftops. I love Kate because she has some serious guts, especially in tricky and even scary situations – and a bucket, which is also cool. And I love Constance because she’s truly gifted in an extraordinary way and her tendency to try to add humor in dire circumstances is refreshing. Not to mention she’s unafraid to call a spade a spade when she sees it. Or at least write a poem about it. (That’s an inside joke – you’ll have to read the books to get it!)
And, I’m happy to report, there are no love triangles, no deus ex machina, no stock characters, and no angst and brooding. Why does this make my day? Because even in independent reader lit, these four “sins” have been cropping up as a possible bleed over from the nearby YA camp. Mercifully, this trilogy avoids these pitfalls by emphasizing familial love over cheesy romance, innovation and perseverance over easy solutions, realistic characters over tropes, and organic emotions over phoniness. Likewise, another facet in this trilogy’s favor is that there are no hammered-home messages, which surprised me given these books’ target audience. Sometimes I sense writers of books for younger readers misjudge kids’ intelligence level and think they have to pander to them by having to make a deliberate moral out of everything. One thing Stewart does here, and does brilliantly, is that the themes, morals, and messages get communicated on their own accord. There are no characters openly proclaiming how this is wrong or this is right or we should all stick together yada-yada-yada. Instead, the characters’ actions and decisions, for good or bad, speak for themselves, which allows kids (and adults) to take away their own meaning.
Action-wise, The Mysterious Benedict Society is paced well though some middle chapters can feel a bit sluggish, especially in the first novel, but they are by no means unimportant to the story as a whole. While the chapters featuring overt action serve as set pieces in each book, the trilogy’s tension builds slowly but steadily, drawing you in. Each book is like a puzzle within a puzzle where the reader is challenged to piece the plots together, very much like a classic detection story. Without revealing spoilers, the books do build on each other but Prisoner’s Dilemma ends with a sense of open finality. I could imagine a fourth novel based on the same characters, but the story is wrapped up in such a way that I suspect three books was all Stewart had planned (save for a separate novel focusing on Benedict’s childhood).
There is so much to appreciate here among not only the young protagonists but the adult characters, too. I can’t find any cases of stock figures and they all have nuances that make them memorable, from Nicholas Benedict himself to even minor players such as Benedict’s assistants. Likewise, the adults are neither clueless idiots nor sappy sentimentalists. It’s a fair fight where we have intellectually-blessed kids matched with equally-intelligent grownups. A real standout for me among the adult protagonist camp was Milligin, a shoddily-dressed former secret agent who joins Benedict’s team. He’s easy to like from the start and his background makes you curious about his history. He’s also not the typical adult figure you see in kid’s books; this guy has some rough edges and has endured some dark stuff but he’s not turned into a brooding antihero nor does he dwell on how bad the world is. Instead, he maintains a hopeful outlook but doesn’t act oblivious to the villainy around him. Much like a few other characters in the trilogy, Milligin’s origins are revealed slowly in segments instead of in over-sized chunks. This gives you time to piece his character together instead of having everything revealed all at once. I like this technique and it shows Stewart has a fine hand.
And, believe it or not, even the villains are noteworthy. Most villains in these types of books tend to dwell squarely in stock character-ville and, to date, the best villain in independent reader lit I’ve come across is Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. But we get levels of baddies in this trilogy, from ruffian kid associates to highly-trained hit men-esque figures. The principal antagonist of the trilogy is Ledropatha Curtain, who, at first, seems unbeatable and has some fairly nefarious plans. His connection in the trilogy will be fairly evident to adult readers though perceptive young readers might pick it up, too. But that’s okay because it sets the stage for an interesting parallel that plays out masterfully until the final book’s end.
Likewise, I really liked Curtain’s henchmen, the Ten Men (so named because they have ten different ways of inflicting harm). Their thuggish methods surprised me to a certain degree as these gents approach their line of “work” with a casual air. It gives them a sinister quality that, in some respects, is more frightening than Curtain since they pose more of an overt, physical danger to the protagonists. Since Curtain represents the evil brains, the Ten Men fulfill the requirement of evil brawn though they’re not stupid. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the Ten Men are some of the best minion-type villains I’ve seen in quite some time.
I’m not sure why I like them so much; they were just very professional, intelligent, dedicated henchmen rather than goofball, goof-up bad guys, which tends to crops up a lot in books for younger readers. For example, Mr. Curtain is chiefly all talk and little action, but the Ten Men combine both and do so with much aplomb though they’re not infallible. Yet their seemingly sadistic pleasure in seeing others frightened or bested was another more adult aspect of the novels that I enjoyed. Granted, their actions manage to not cross the line of good taste for a kid’s book and the technique Stewart uses to soften their image was quite clever. So as not to ruin the surprise, I’ll just say this – guns and knives aren’t in a Ten Man’s repertoire but they’re still formidable and very dangerous. The fact they keep a cool, collected, polished exterior adds to the mystique. Essentially, these are some guys to look at from a distance but you wouldn’t want to meet one in a dark alley. Or even an alley during the daytime.
Plus I kept envisioning McCracken, the head Ten Man, as visually/physically some sort of cross of Agent Smith from The Matrix, Agent 47 from the Hitman games, and Hugo Snyder from the 90s kid’s flick 3 Ninjas…so, yeah, I got a little fangirl thing goin’ on.
The last thing I loved about this trilogy was, believe it or not, the puns. Some people hate puns but I like them provided the humor and timing is right. True, most adults will pick up on the word plays here fairly quickly (such as Ledropatha Curtain, Nomanisan Island, and, of course, the Ten Men’s names), but they’re delivered with finesse and avoid getting cute by being splattered on every page.
Overall, The Mysterious Benedict Society was a surprise hit for me and I sense it might satisfy a wide palette of literary tastes. It was actually a blind bookstore buy for me as I spied the cover, read the back blurb, and scanned through the opening paragraph. At first, I wasn’t sure how interesting a book like this could be that opens up with one of its leads on his way to take a test. But there was something about it that I had to find out what was happening and I’m glad I took it home with me (after paying for it of course!). I’m very pleased I did because this trilogy ranks among my all-time favorite books as it hits every possible mark a good book (and series) should have: clever writing, engaging style, original and organic characters, and an overall edifying read. This series has its serious moments but it’s not a doom and gloom story. In the end, I’m proud to have this trilogy on my shelf and it’s a series I look forward to reading every year.
Language – None (in all three books).
Violence – There are tense moments in all three books when characters are in danger, harmed, or threatened with harm but it’s not on every page nor is it graphic. Probably the more perilous portions are when the Ten Men come on the scene and it’s clear they take delight in frightening and threatening to harm the protagonists, both the children and the adults. But their image is softened by the fact that they use rather ordinary objects as weapons. Any child who would be most bothered by these parts would probably be too young to read these books based on their length and complexity of plot.
Sexual Material – None (in all three books).
The Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy was one of those blind buys that turned out to be awesome. It’s an engaging pleasure to read with a solid story, solid writing, solid characters, solid action, and solid mystery elements. Kids with short attention spans won’t be pleased by the books’ size but that’s a real shame because this is a series I think kids should be exposed to, as well as adults. While some chapters feel sagging at times, they are quickly picked up with faster-moving scenes. I was surprised at how well I enjoyed these books and I can recommend them to anyone hunting for a good read of some length.