© Trenton Lee Stewart, cover illustration © Diana Sudyka.
This is a prequel of sorts to the author’s trilogy about the Mysterious Benedict Society telling about the childhood of Nicholas Benedict, the father-figure and benefactor of those books. I enjoyed reading the trilogy, but found this book to be even better.
Nine-year-old Nicholas is a boy burdened and blessed with very unusual attributes. On the negative side, he has narcolepsy, which causes him to fall asleep suddenly and irresistably especially when stressed or emotional. For a young orphan about to start life in a new orphanage, this is quite a hazardous thing. On the plus side, Nicholas has a brilliant analytical mind and a charming personality (when given the chance to show it) that have helped him overcome many obstacles in his life up to now. The three large, strong bullies known as The Spiders, a headmaster who treats him like a mental deficient, and other staff that aren’t much better are soon making the boy’s life in his new home even more miserable than he expected. John, one good friend, surfaces, but even he must keep his contact with the new boy low key. Like all the children, his every move is monitored by The Spiders.
Amid the terrible life Nicholas finds himself in, there are some glimmers of hope. For one, the orphanage is rumored to hold a valuable hidden treasure. Nicholas, John, and another friend they meet from a nearby farm are determined to find the treasure and use it as a way out of their troubles. But the headmaster is also looking, and The Spiders are always ready to make trouble at every opportunity.
Author Trenton Lee Stewart’s Benedict Society books were very plot driven. In fact they were largely a series of puzzles through with the characters moved. There are some puzzles in this book, but the story is more character driven, and the depiction of a very brave and smart boy with serious health issues and social troubles is very well done. I don’t think I’ve ever read a better example of how a brilliant mind works from the inside. Imagine if the Sherlock Holmes stories had taken us into the Great Detective’s thought processes. Stewart makes that work admirably for Nicholas. Also, the plot is much less predictable than in the previous books, and the emotional journey is deeper and more satisfying.
You don’t have to have read the other books to enjoy this one. In fact, as a prequel it makes a fine starting point. Highly recommended.