Friday, August 04, 2006

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

Rating - 2: not worth reading (skip it)

I hate to recommend against someone's first book, especially when it shows promise, but we must be faithful to the ratings. Every new author is competing against every book ever written, under the question, "Is this good enough to spend part of my scarce time alive reading?"

Four gifted children undertake a series of mysterious tests, bringing them to an even more mysterious challenge at the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened. An evil mastermind is out to control the world, and only a team of dedicated and intelligent children can stop him. Really, we have a justification for it, this is not an arbitrary "teens must save the world because no one will listen to them" story.

The first 101 pages are very good. This is when we meet all the characters and explore their oddities a bit. Everyone except Rhonda is given a personality and a quirk, which is a standard setup that is done well. Given the same situation, here is how each of our four children approach it differently.

This is a device that could become tedious, but instead it becomes mostly irrelevant. I feared that it would turn into The Five Chinese Brothers, where we could cycle the characters through like Pokémon as their powers were needed. Veering towards the opposite problem, the differences were mostly decorative, although significant at times. The story is not character-driven; they are carried along by the external plot, and characters' differences create different ways of reacting to it without actually affecting things. Perhaps the tendency to follow Reynie constricts our perception of the differing characters.

So our time at the Institute is weak, and that constitutes most of the book. Time seems to dilate oddly; things drag while times sees to fly by quickly. This could be a fair analogy for being in school. The characters are carried along by events and exposition at the Institute, so they do not get to shine much. We do start getting more involved in the characters as the climax approaches, but it is overwhelmingly negative pathos, and again Reynie-centered.

The climax is good. We return to its being important that the characters have different skills and worldviews. The characters drive the events. The use of characters and the final confrontation are excellent.

The denouement is a bit convenient. It is like a Shakespeare comedy, where everyone gets married at the end. Here, everyone gets a separate happy ending (of the same structure), which can drag a bit even when it is short. I think of Holes as a good example of how to do that ending well (with the movie showing where you cross that line). Also, I see a tendency towards those supervillain monologues as the book wears on, long on "here is how it all came together!"

Crafting of characters is good -- simple but compelling. What needs work is keeping that relevant to the story (without veering to the opposite extreme). Harry Potter provides a good example of that, but then everyone is trying to write the next Harry Potter anyway. Still, the stories present good examples where the primary action is driven by the evil mastermind's plans but character differences are relevant, even essential to the storyline.

I might have gone for a 2.5 rating, since those first four or five chapters are very good, but they do not stand on their own as a separate unit. If the rest of the book lived up to the standards of the setup, it would definitely be a 4.

Excellent moments: the granola bar line in chapter five, which is a cute moment showing character quirks and interaction; "Rote memorization of lessons was discouraged but required; class participation was encouraged but rarely permitted" (quote may vary in final edition); and when the Curtain rises during the climax (avoiding any spoilage on a very well-written scene, reminiscent of the doors opening on Kong).

Amazon link

Expected publication: March 2007

1 comment:

Emily said...

It was nice to find a review that didn't wax poetic about this book. It really fell flat for me, but I guess I'm in the minority! Good review.