The Secrets of the Cheese Syndicate is a middle grade fantasy. It reminded me of Bruce Coville or The Spiderwick Chronicles because it begins with ordinary kids in our non-fantasy world. Robert Montasio is just trying to get through the day without getting into trouble, and without having to deal with his annoying little sister Janine. When Robert finds a mysterious bottle of Madame Gorgonzola’s Effervescent Elixer on the school bus, he’s curious, but the trouble really begins when Janine drinks it all. Robert, attempting to avoid more trouble with his overworked single mom, tries to hide this fact from her. But soon Janine begins shrinking, and it’s clear that something must be done to save her. It turns out the elixir is only a small part of the secret world of the Cheese Syndicate. What’s more, the members of the Cheese Syndicate seem to know what happened to Robert’s long lost dad. The only way Robert can save Janine is to find the Mystic Cheese of Eliki. Using only a field guide and an assortment of cheeses as weapons against the monsters of the fantasy world they have entered, Robert and Janine search for the rare lost cheese.
This story is fast paced, with very real stakes in an unreal setting. St.Cyr has created a unique world which draws on both classical mythology and tongue-in-cheek cheese jokes to make it adventurous and silly. Readers may recall better than Robert the rhymes he’s been given to help him, such as “the manticore flees at the smell of limburger cheese.” St. Cyr introduces lot of mythical characters in a short time, so younger readers may have some trouble keeping track of them all.
Robert’s uncertainty in his own abilities and desire to both do the right thing and stay out of trouble are universal. The sibling relationship between Robert and Janine is spot-on, as she alternately annoys him and helps him. His irritation with her becomes funny, especially when she is so tiny she is just a bossy voice coming from his pocket. Kids will enjoy the gross-out humor complete with stinky smells.