Those who have read and loved THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY and its sequels know Nicholas Benedict as an enigmatic man, a narcoleptic and a genius who kindly inspires his young protégés. They also know him as an old (or at least older) man. But what was Nicholas Benedict like as a boy? And how and when did he develop the abiding love of mysteries, puzzles and problem-solving that defined the rest of his life?
The answers to those questions --- not to mention a rollicking good mystery plot --- lie at the center of THE EXTRAORDINARY EDUCATION OF NICHOLAS BENEDICT, a prequel to Trenton Lee Stewart's three previous novels and a thoroughly entertaining story in its own right.
When we first meet the nine-year-old Nicholas Benedict, he is on his way to a new orphanage, one that promises to manage his narcolepsy and its attendant night terrors better than his previous lodgings. Nicholas, whose prodigious intellect and impeccable memory belie his childlike optimism, wants to believe that this new location will offer him a new beginning, away from the bullying and cruelty he has encountered at his previous schools.
Far from a fresh start, however, Rothschild's End (or "Child's End," as it is known) seems to provide an even worse environment. Before he even arrives, Nicholas, who looks younger than he actually is, is targeted by the resident gang, known as the Spiders. And Mr. Collum, the head of the school, seems to think that only the most draconian measures --- which include bricking in Nicholas's window and locking his door from the outside --- can save our narcoleptic hero from himself. Even worse, Nicholas is barred from utilizing the school's amazing library, which is "the most exciting spectacle of his life."
But Nicholas, whose eyes and ears are always open and who can memorize text and map out floor plans without thinking twice about it, won't be so easily cowed. He is bound and determined to make his time at Child's End not an end but a beginning. When he finds a hidden reference to a secret treasure room, he starts down the road of puzzle-solving and mystery-investigating that will define the rest of his life.
Trenton Lee Stewart has a gift for portraying kids who are precocious but never annoying. It could be easy to dislike a boy who is as unapologetically brilliant and self-confident as the young Nicholas Benedict. But his genuine joy of learning and exploration, as well as his abiding hope that things can and will get better, make him a likable and sympathetic character. As with the other Mysterious Benedict Society novels, readers will enjoy challenging themselves to solve puzzles alongside the hero, and they'll root for him and themselves as they proceed together toward the kind of treasure that Nicholas least expects but most needs.
Readers who already love these books will appreciate the familiarity of Stewart's approach, and those who are just meeting young Master Benedict for the first time will be charmed and challenged in equal measure.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 30, 2012