Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Book Review - The Secret Keepers

Seven years ago I started reading the "Mysterious Benedict Society" aloud with my kids. We had a ton of fun with the puzzles and adventures laid out in those books. So naturally when I found a new "middle grader" book from the same author I jumped at the chance to read it.

The Secret Keepers centers on the adventures of a young 11-year-old boy named Reuben. He lives in Lower Downs, one of the poorer areas of the city of New Umbra. His father died when he was a baby and his mother has to work 2 jobs to keep them afloat in their tiny little apartment. While his mother works, Reuben spends his days exploring the city and keeping a watch on the various inhabitants of the neighborhoods. As he wanders the city we learn a little bit about the "politics" of the city. A mysterious man (or creature?) known only as "The Smoke" keeps the city under his thumb. Over the years he has accumulated significant influence such that he essentially controls the government, police force, shopkeepers, etc. He has bands of spies/enforcers that Reuben (and others) refer to as "The Directions." These men go out in groups of four, each assigned to always keep watch in a certain direction (forward, behind, left, right) so that as they patrol the streets they always look everywhere. Reuben prides himself on being able to observe the Directions from positions where he can't be seen from them. This is one of his many games. His other is exploring and adventuring places he's never been before.

One morning he finds an alley with two buildings close together and a ledge higher up. He decides to see if he can lean between the two buildings and work himself up to the ledge. After a nerve wracking climb and nearly exhausting his strength, Reuben rests on the ledge and enjoys the view. It is here that he discovers a small box engraved with a name and containing an intriguing watch. He admires the beauty and workmanship of the watch and wonders if perhaps he could sell it to try and help raise his family a little bit out of their poverty. However, as he starts investigating the watch to try and find potential buyers, he learns that the Smoke has been searching for a watch precisely matching this one for many years. Wondering why the Smoke would be interested in the watch, Reuben tinkers with the watch and discovers an unexpected secret...the watch provides the holder with a temporary but amazing power. Somehow the Smoke learns that a boy has found the watch and sends his Directions out to search everywhere to try and find Reuben.

Worried for his safety and not wanting the Smoke to gain the power of the watch, Reuben sets out to find the history of the watch and see what he can learn about its previous owners. His search leads him to the Meyer family who has a multi-generation secret story around the watch and what they need to do if/when it ever finds its way back to them. The youngest member of the family, Penny, becomes a good friend to Reuben and as Reuben determines to continue his adventure, she convinces him to reluctantly bring her along. Her older brother Jack finds out about their plans and attaches himself to the adventure to try and undermine the Smoke and his hold on the city.

Like the Benedict Society books, this novel is a hefty read with over 500 pages. While geared towards middle graders (aged 8-12), it is written with a tone, complexity and style that doesn't talk down to them and as such it might be off-putting for less adept readers such that it might be better for the older side of that age range. When I read the Benedict books to my kids, the youngest was 5 and she enjoyed the stories while not catching the nuances. I suspect the same would be true for younger readers of Secret Keepers. An 8-year-old could likely read the book but might get bogged down and a little bored.

The overall pacing of the story is methodical and builds on itself as the story progresses. The book is split into three "parts" which could have been categorized as novellas (or novels for younger readers) each being about 170 pages. The first focuses on Reuben in the Lower Downs and his search through New Umbra to learn more about the watch. The second involves his trip where he meets the Meyer family and learns the history of the watch and then formulates his plan to take on the Smoke. The final part involves the culmination of his plans and the confrontation with the Smoke. The first part of the book is much slower paced as we get character and world development. The pace picks up as we move into the second part and then it really cranks up once we get into the climactic adventure in part three. Even though the world, characters and story is interesting and engaging, I could see some readers getting bored and bogged down in the early chapters. My advice would be to push through for the heightened suspense and action that builds later in the book. The buildup is worth it.

I found the mechanisms of the plot both unique and familiar at the same time. The world building was both non-descript and realistic. It wasn't set in any specific country location but I could visualize the city, towns and locations quite well. Most of the characterization was pretty high level. Reuben was fairly detailed but I sometimes found myself wondering at his age, physical/mental strength and his fortitude. I acknowledge that he grew up in hard circumstances but his nature and abilities were still a bit surprising. Still, as the protagonist of a children's novel, this is to be expected. The other main characters (Penny and Jack especially) were a lot of fun. I enjoyed the characteristics given to their family as a whole and the way that Penny and Jack were at opposite ends of these character traits. As far as plot development, without presenting any "spoilers" for you let me make what may seem like a very strange comparison...I was reminded a little bit of Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. I thought about the watch and the Smoke and their relation to the Tolkien plot and his One Ring. It helped flesh out some of the strange motivations of both Reuben and the Smoke. I don't know if those stories were a direct influence or not but it was a fun comparison to run in my mind.

Overall I found this to be an excellent read. I am definitely recommending that my kids pick this up and read it. They're older now so schedules make reading it aloud to them a bit trickier or else I would suggest we renew that tradition. Time has subdued my memory of the Benedict stories but in an initial comparison of my memory, I feel like I loved this book more than the Benedict novels. A re-read of those stories might change my mind but I suspect they are at least equal in enjoyment.

I whole heartedly recommend this book to middle grade or YA readers and even to adult readers who like "youthful" stories. Be prepared for a methodic buildup with intriguing and engaging twists and turns to take you down both predictable and unpredictable roads and leaving you with a number of thoughtful questions to consider.

4.5 out of 5 stars

View all of my reviews on Goodreads.com

No comments: