The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Trenton Lee Stewart
This book is a prequel to the Mysterious Benedict Society series, and I think it’s the best of the bunch. In the later books, Nicholas Benedict is an old man who brings together several super-intelligent children to help him save the world from mind control. This novel tells the story of his childhood and how he became the benevolent mastermind of the othe books. It begins with his arrival at an orphanage and mostly concerns a search for a treasure on the premises. There’s something about the whimsical tone that fits the vaguely postwar setting of this novel better than the other three’s more contemporary timeline. The boarding school tradition that inspired this book goes better with the puns and the exaggerations than the action/buddy comedy genre of the other novels as well. There are moments that reminded me of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, especially the comically absurd baddies and the precocious protagonist’s efforts to manipulate adults who aren’t as smart as he is. (This is a high compliment.)
The other great thing is that this book seems to show more explicit character growth than the other ones, and this growth is connected more strongly to the mystery that drives the plot. Nicholas learns about the goodness in human nature and discovers the kind of person he wants to become through his search for the treasure. He realizes how selfish some of his actions and ideas were and makes amends. Also, the mystery and its solution seem more thematically connected and resonant.
Maybe one thing that makes this book better than the others is its lack of a villain. In the other three novels, Mr. Curtain (Nicholas Benedict’s estranged twin brother) is cartoonish in his dastardly pursuit of power. The closest characters this prequel has to villains are some school bullies and Mr. Collum, the orphanage’s director and Nicholas’s main competition in his search for the treasure. By the end, though, it seems clear that Mr. Collum isn’t so much evil as inept and bad with kids. And the bullies are only small nuisances to the brilliant Benedict, who outwits them constantly.