For today’s writers, either a popular hook or broad pitching platform is a prerequisite for getting published. So authors and publishing houses re-brew plot formulae and dabble in the magic of cloning. Catherine Jinks’ Evil Genius, for instance, suits Harry Potter readers. Actually, its opening is so like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, you may be put off.
Keep at it if you enjoy unlikely heroes and comic book villains. Here’s a what’s-up-at-the-weird-boarding-school plot—a staple of young adult fiction since the inception of boarding schools, but it’s updated with a dose of computer jargon and electronic gadgets. As for the characters? What’s the collective noun for a whole bunch of dysfunctional, criminally minded adults running a special school? Added to that, a bigger bunch of disgruntled teens who never hope to travel with the pack at an ordinary school? A collection of crows is a called a “murder”. That works.
The first “crow” we meet in Evil Genius is Cadel Piggott Darkkon, age seven. His foster parents oppress him. He’s unsure of the fates of his parents. Cadel is desperate for a way to fit in. He doesn’t wave a wand and he hasn’t a clue where track “nine and three quarters” is. A computer genius, he is intent on figuring out how to extract revenge on his entire school. Years pass. At 13, he graduates high school and hooks up with Dr. Thaddeus Roth, his shrink. Roth manipulates the foster parents into enrolling Cadel at the Axis Institute. You can’t miss harkening back to Nazi villains of World War II plots—wild eyes beneath wire-rimmed glasses, maniacal laughter echoing down corridors as parents and prospective students creep anxiously through a tour.
It isn’t easy to qualify at Axis. Cadel gets in because his “real” dad created the school just for him. Cadel is bad, but not quite evil enough to get in on his own merit. (Go figure.) The rest of the student body: A guy who wants to repopulate the world by creating a race of vampires; sadistic telepathic twin girls who call themselves Gem and Ni; a boy who smells so awful he has to live in a sealed suit—a whiff can be lethal (the government may want him as a new weapon of mass destruction); a firestarter; and a kid who does nothing, absolutely nothing, but stare at a computer screen until the final chapter. Their classes include Lying, Disguises, Poisoning, Money Laundering, Fraud—every felony on the books.
So, we learn, this particular “murder” is gathered to help Phineas Darkkon, Cadel’s dad, achieve world domination. Phineas apparently lives in the toilet of a prison for the criminally insane. He communicates, while vomiting from time to time, with Cadel and Roth via a video transmitter. Then, no surprise here, something goes terribly awry. People disappear and/or turn up dead at the school. Wholesale mayhem escalates, as Cadel frantically dashes from school to home to school and back. He’s can’t seem to figure out why his life doesn’t feel normal. Soon, teachers or students die on every page.
Though Cadel is so young, small of stature, and attractive that every character comments on it, he is in love with Kay-Lee, a woman he thinks is 50-something. An Internet romance. Because nothing is as it seems in this intricately crocheted story, Kay-Lee reveals her real identity, about half way through. As does everyone else.
But does it work? Catherine Jinks, an experienced author from Australia, has written award-winning books for teens. She says she’s influenced heavily by ancient history and by British comedies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In that light, Evil Genius is less confusing. But not entirely acceptable. If you read it with the Montys’ jaded eye, it might work in an adult context. It’s supposed to be darkly amusing, but it isn’t. Until I found out about Jinks’ penchant for Python, I didn’t get that the book was supposed to be funny.
What doesn’t work is the dangerous device of lighthearted murder for young readers. Yes, the publisher labels this one “12 and over.” Twelve is young. The students at Axis are caricatures of every emotionally distressed, dysfunctional child: The child with poor hygiene habits—ostracized and laughed at; the child who sinks into a world of computers because he can’t build or sustain relationships; teen girls with such poor self-esteem they resort to verbally slamming and flaming anyone and everyone.
Jinks offs her characters as casually as Disney’s White Queen beheaded roses. No one bleeds. No one feels pain. No one is missed. In Evil Genius, off stage, another one casually bites the dust with the frantic beat of a Satanic metronome. A literary grim reaper mercilessly plows through, meting out punishments for transgressions of dysfunctional teens. Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka puts just desserts on the menu for rude, nasty children. But no one dies. The punishment suits the misbehavior. Readers are tickled by Dahl’s skill and wit, and by a sense of justice.
But from Jinks, the punishment is death. That isn’t a huge leap for kids in today’s world. Their friends and schoolmates may be the next to die on the real world 11 o’clock news. Kids witness violence, blood, and grief left from school shootings, war deaths, terrorist attacks, and hostage taking. Shouldn’t a writer at least nod to the reality and pain of death? Does death impact life, or doesn’t it? Is it OK to make people disposable?
When the Evil Genius clock winds down, Cadel, a supposedly sympathetic hero, is agonizing about his own feelings of responsibility for murder. But he blames everyone else. Little is resolved or even explained. There is no reason for any of pages of disconnected cloak and dagger, and chase scenes. Just like there is no good reason for senseless violence kids witness on the news. The allusion is not subtle; it may not even have been Jinks’ intension. But it’s there and it’s of concern. If you don’t behave, you will die. And nothing will change for those left behind.
Jinks’ writes with a glib pen. Her dialogue is spot on. Her storytelling falls into implausible valleys at times, but overall, she’s articulate and engaging. It would be such a pleasure to see her go her own path, leaving Hogwarts and Python at the side of the road. If your teen picks this one up, you can only hope she gets half through, lays the book down, and forgets where she put it.