The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey
by Trenton Lee Stewart
…the title is about as vague as possible, and yet it still manages to disappoint.
All cards on the table, I did not look at this book and go, “Oh yeah, this is going to be one of my favourites.” My expectations were not high. The first book had quite a few memorable moments and flashes of brilliance. It had a little bit of tedium when the kids got to the School of Evil, but even then, it was usually fun. But overall, this series seems to suffer from consistent flaws, mostly in the voice and exhausting logorrhea. TLS never uses four words when he can justify forty, and if half of them are repetitious, then all the better. This book is that kid who, instead of just getting up and getting a glass of water, talks for twenty minutes about how thirsty he is, how efficacious he hopes a glass of water would be, vocally weighs the pros and cons of adding ice, and what size glass he will choose as he has a small bladder and doesn’t feel like a trip to the loo just yet. If you don’t shut him up fast, he may discuss the bathroom’s fixtures.
The vagueness of the title is itself rather foreboding. This second instalment in the series has a terrible lack of direction. Exciting things do happen, but they don’t have as much point as the previous book. That one had plot so tightly woven that it approached holistic. This one starts out on such a weak beginning that the rest comes across more as a series of perilous events than a grand plot. (although the ending does come together nicely) Maybe the problem is that the journey has a purpose, but not a set destination. I don’t know.
Something I feel important to note is that, for a book that calls upon the subject of genius and precociousness, the writing is remarkably juvenile. To be fair, the vocabulary is not part of that problem. The voice, though, is. The prose is not very complex in rhythm or structure, and don’t anyone tell me that this is a kids’ book so it should be simple. It can be simple, but more than anything, it is SAMEY. The way that puzzles are presented and solved varies from clever to, “Why didn’t they get that immediately?” The tedious verbosity doesn’t help the mix of attempts at sounding high brow and catering overmuch to the target age group. I understand the difficulty, though. And some of the solutions to conflict, if not puzzles, are very clever indeed.
Anyway, the beginning is not robust, to be kind. Reynie and his friends have spent the last six months apart, and way too much of the beginning is spent with mawkish reunions and remonstrations about not writing enough that do not compare well to Harry Potter. Intrigue is (eventually) sparked when they go to see Mr Benedict, only to find that he and Number Two are missing. Determined to find him, the children decide that the only lead they have is to follow clues Mr Benedict had assembled to lead them on a fun adventure.
I don’t get the logic here. Mr B and Number Two were kidnapped. The authorities have been called in. These are supposed to be incredibly smart children, and they actually think that it’s a good idea to ditch the adults to find Mr Benedict themselves, and that the way to do that is to go to their last known location by way of riddles one might find in Highlights for Children. I’m being a little harsh, but the insistence on not involving the adults, that the kids know best, look a little ridiculous in this situation. Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, but I didn’t understand why they didn’t get the two most competent adults to come along. At least. By the end, they are heavily reliant on those adults that are available. So… what is even the what?
There’s not really much point in talking about the middle. It’s a journey story with puzzles. That’s really all I have to say that I haven’t already said. The ending, aside from most of the wrapping-up, is incredibly twee at times. What would you call a twee deus ex machina? Twee-us ex machina? Bad guys literally applaud nobility on the part of one of the good guys. I know it may sound worse out of context, but I don’t remember or care enough to provide context. I also had to roll my eyes when the parents/guardians are all understanding and happy to have their children back. They scarcely lose their composure.
Constance Contraire is still my favourite character, and the revelation from the end of the first book is still a good one. A bit like watching Mission Impossible a second time. I definitely appreciated this book for that experience, since I don’t think it would have been as nice as if I had just re-read the first book.
I’m not sure if I would actually recommend this to someone in the target audience, and probably not to anyone older than that. It’s a long book, and the length is absolutely unnecessary. There are shorter books, and other long books that use their real estate better.