The Bookshelf, by Rebekah Hall.
Whenever a story starts employing very obvious stereotypes or clichés, it’s usually not good news. It’s the first symptom of an author lacking in creativity, and for readers paying attention, it typically means that the creativity shortage is about to get a lot worse as the story progresses.
Some might argue that using a critiquing method where you stand on guard for any clichés and stereotypes is rather harsh, but, unfortunately, more often than not it turns to be accurate. This is particularly true for the more conspicuous ones, such as the (blonde) feminist heroine, or the villain who details his entire plan of world domination to the hero, or better still, innocuous story messages like “Teamwork”.
Then there are the clichés that you find in Trenton Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy. They are numerous, and are pretty entrenched in the story as well; the main characters having very compartmentalized roles would be a good example. If you are using the critiquing method above, though, you’ll see fairly quickly that the Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy is an exception to the rule, because if you are going to take the stereotypes and clichés that seriously, you are going to have to take the rest of the story dead seriously as well, and to do that would be a big mistake.
Where the origin of most clichés is laziness, the ones in Mysterious Benedict Society serve a point, which is utter and complete simplicity. Why would you want a book to be simple? Basically, it is because the best way to highlight a theme is to simplify the elements. In other words, if the characters of Mysterious Benedict Society are a bit compartmentalized, it is not because Stewart didn’t know what to do with them, but because he had made them into chess pieces.
The first book of the trilogy opens with Reynie Muldoon taking a particularly unique exam. Reynie is a sheltered, but clever eleven year-old orphan, and the exam he is taking promises “special opportunities” for the talented children who pass. It is an exam that tests not so much knowledge as it does ingenuity and moral character, and in the end only four children pass: Reynie himself, a boy nicknamed “Sticky” for his photographic memory, an energetic girl named Kate, and a much more sullen girl named Constance.
Even from the start, the children’s individual talents are obvious. Reynie is a born puzzle-solver and potential leader; Sticky is, of course, the bright and knowledgeable companion who has entire libraries memorized (he even has glasses to complete the stereotype); and Kate is the physically-able engineer. Unfortunately, this review cannot talk about Constance, since much of her character can be classified as spoiler, but what can be said is that she is very amusingly well done.
The creator of the exam is a benign genius by the name of Mr. Benedict. Several years before, his research led him to discover secret messages that are brainwashing the world by piggybacking on media, such as radio or TV waves. The secret message broadcasts were coming from a prestigious private school known as the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (LIVE), and because the authorities have refused to believe him, Mr. Benedict is reduced to the desperate act of asking the four children to enroll in the Institute as spies.
All four of the children come from parentless situations, but Stewart tries to level the playing-field by providing four highly-capable adults to match each child. Mr. Benedict is naturally the head of them, and serves a role almost like that of Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series. From book one onwards, there’s very few instances of the “idiot parent syndrome”; whenever the children outwit the adults, the adults are pretty quick to catch up.
While there are a few parts that seem a bit sluggish (particularly in the second book, The Perilous Journey), the trilogy on a whole moves very smoothly and the action is well paced. During their stay at the Institute in the first book, Mr. Benedict’s secret method of communicating with the children is through riddles, and throughout the rest of the trilogy it becomes his favorite way to tell them things; the riddles, of course, are also aimed at the reader, and it turns into a game on the side simply figuring out the riddles before the children do.
The trilogy’s one shining glory that has to be mentioned, though, is its morality. It’s very uncommon to see the idea of the ends justifying the means so thoroughly condemned as it is in this series. The morality of four the children is certainly not perfect, and that’s the point as they strive to morally perfect their actions; and while religion is never mentioned in the series, what moral code they happen to be following is very obvious when it goes to the extent of completely loving one’s enemy.
Aside from learning a few high vocabulary words, The Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy will probably not be some of the deepest books you read; but as light reading fare goes, this is very likely one of the best offerings out there.
Rebekah is a senior in high school who loves reading, writing, or anything that contains a story and a puzzle. She runs the review blog “And a Sweet Sound it Made” – http://www.andasweetsound.blogspot.com