by Trenton Lee Stewart
Star Rating: 3.4 out of 4
Book 2 in The Mysterious Benedict Society series
In the first book, four children are recruited by Mr. Benedict to become members of a secret society attempting to foil a plot for world domination. These children are put through a particular sort of intelligence testing - more riddles and pattern-soving than actual IQ tests - and then sent forth to infiltrate a school where the evil mastermind is at work. The first book's amazing and I recommend it to everyone; the first third of it consists of the children's testing, and it's fun to try to solve the riddles along with them. (I failed miserably.) But beyond being intellectually stimulating, the book's plot was well-conceived and the characters delightful.
The four children are Reynie, Kate, Sticky, and Constance. Reynie is the main protagonist and the de facto leader of the group because of his great intelligence (which they all share) and his searing intuition, which often takes him straight to the heart of any problem. Kate grew up with the circus, and so knows all sorts of acrobatic tricks (I must admit I find it fantastic that the one with the greatest physical prowess in the group is a girl); she carries a bucket with her at all times containing useful items like rope, a flashlight, and a Swiss army knife. Sticky (real name George) is so nicknamed because of his memory, into which everything he reads sticks; and finally, there's Constance, who is little, crabby, disobediant, oppositional, snarky, usually angry, and sleeps a lot.
In this book, the children reunite after a year because Mr. Benedict has arranged for them to take a trip by following a trail of clues. However, something goes terribly wrong and Mr. Benedict is captured by Mr. Curtain, his nemesis from the first book. But the clues are in place... and the children decide to follow the trail. I'll say straight off that normally the We're Kids But We're Going to Try to Solve Everything trope irritates me - you're 5 years old and you think you're more competent than adults? Really? - but in this book it makes perfect sense. They're incredibly intelligent, after all, and Mr. Benedict designed the clues with them specifically in mind. The clues take them on a wonderful journey on ships and planes, to castles and deserted islands, and tests the limits of their strength. Plus, all through this book we get to solve the puzzling clues along with the kids. (I did slightly better this time. Maybe I'm getting smarter?)
I deeply appreciate the depth Stewart gives his protagonists. Reynie, having seen a power-mad would-be dictator up close in the last book, is considerably shaken by the experience. At this book's beginning, he is on the verge of seeing evil everywhere and of coming to believe that evil is more intrinsic, and perhaps more powerful, than good:
Mr. Benedict settled back against his desk. "It's natural that you feel as you do, Reynie. There is much more to the world that most children - indeed, most adults - ever see or know. And where most people see mirrors, you, my friend, see windows. By which I mean there is always something beyond the glass. You have seen it and will always see it now, though others may not. I would have spared you that vision at such a young age. But it's been given you, and it will be up to you to decide whether it's a blessing or a curse."Maybe no other book series except Ender's Game presents extremely gifted children with such humanity. Each one has a distinct personality (not just from each other, but from any other characters I've read) and faces particular challenges because of it. Reynie's great gift is his intuition, a gift easily tainted by mistrustfulness; Kate is fiercely protective, but that impulse can lead her toward vengeance; Sticky's prodigious memory is a huge asset to the team, but he's insecure and not naturally brave, so he begins to get stuck up about his memory and doubts himself the rest of the time. And Constance must overcome her fear about her own gifts (as well as her cantankerous nature). They're a brilliant team, perfectly psychologically aligned.
And... it's funny!
"It will be a dark day," said Reynie grimly.Hugely recommended.
"It will be a dark night," said Kate.
Sticky started to say that it would be a total solar eclipse in conjunction with unseasonably heavy cloud cover, but Constance interrupted him.