Sunday, July 1, 2007

Evil Genius

Evil Genius
by Catherine Jinks
Harcourt Children's Books
Reviewed by Melissa

There are books with brilliant bad boys. There are great thriller and adventure books. Evil Genius had potential to be one of those, a kind of Artemis Fowl meets Alex Rider. The genius kid who goes to a University of Evil: brilliant. But, unfortunately, it's not meant to be.
The idea of the book (which came from Jinks wondering where Dr. X got his university degree) was the book's strong point. When writing about the Axis Institute, Jinks was at her best. The courses were brilliant:

When he loaded the program, he discovered an alternative course handbook for the Axis Institute--and it wasn't the kind of thing you'd want falling into the hands of your parents. With growing astonishment Cadel discovered the real names of the institute's schools and departments. It seemed that the School of Deception offered not computer science, psychology, media studies and accounting, but infiltration, manipulation, misinformation, and embezzlement. The School of Organic Perversion ran courses on contagion and mutations (both genetic and radiation-induced). The School of Destruction covered explosives, assassination (including poisoning), guerrilla skills, and something called Personal Growth.

The teachers were intriguing -- Brendan the autistic embezzler, Terry the weird microbiologist, Vee the computer hacker, Art the forgery lecturer, Dr. Deal the lawyer, Luther the explosives expert , Adolf (aka The Furher) who handles security, Max the mafia guy (who is just plain odd), and the disguise expert.

But the premise doesn't sustain the plot. Cadel is a 14-year-old genius, who, when he was seven, got caught for hacking into high-security computer networks. He was put on probation and got referred to a psychologist, one Dr. Thaddeus Roth. However, you soon find out that Dr. Roth is not your run-of-the-mill psychologist:

I'll make a deal with you, Cadel," said Thaddeus. "Can you keep a secret?"

Solemnly, Cadel nodded.

"Good. Then this is what we'll do. If you don't tell your parents about it, I'll let you use my computer whenever you come here. Does that sound good??

Again, Cadel nodded.

"And all I ask in return is this." The corner of Thaddeus's mouth rose, revealing one yellowish, pointed canine tooth. Through the lenses of his spectacles, his eyes were as black as a snake's. His voice dropped to a throaty whisper. "Next time," he murmured, "whatever you do, don't get caught."

After a while with Dr. Roth, Cadel meets his real father, Philias Darkkon, evil mastermind, who is in jail somewhere. (They communicate via a DNA transmitter. Don't ask, they don't explain it.) Darkkon and Dr. Roth guide Cadel's "upbringing" and his eventual admittance into the Axis Institute, aka Evil U.

The book up until this point was fairly amusing, in an odd sort of way. The institute, to begin with, was even fun. Max goes on about the nature of evil:

"Evil is just a woid," he declared, "used by society to condemn de actions of people it don't like. Evil is the opposite of what society calls good. Some people might call bullfights evil, but de Spanish don't. Some people call war evil, but you don't see it going outta fashion. De concept of evil is as flexible as a hunka clay. You can fashion it into practically any shape you want. So while some people might call dis institution evil, if dey ever found out about it" -- he flashed a closed-mouth smile at Thaddeus, a smile that didn't reach his eyes --"let's not forget waht de real problem is. People like dat are using de woid because dey're scared. Because Dr. Darkkon's ideas will rob 'em of any power. What dose people call evil is a respected philosophy of life known as survival of the fittest."

But it soon gets bogged down in what I'm going to call the "J.K. Rowling syndrome". Rowling often gives readers a play-by-play of Harry's world: foods, classes, movements, days off. Jinks takes that and transfers it to modern-day Sydney, where it doesn't work nearly as well. We want to read about what Harry and friends eat and do, because peppermint humbugs, chocolate frogs and Defense of the Dark Arts are different and interesting. This, is not:

Cadel was still damp in places, even after standing under the hand dryers in the bathroom for ten minutes. So he ordered a hot chocolate with his ham and cheese focaccia. The twins shared a salad sandwich. Abraham picked at a sausage roll, and Doris ate her way steadily through a meat pie, fries, and vegetables, followed by a large chocolate-chip muffin.

It goes on and on like that. Litanies of daily life. Cadel eats vegetarian pizza. He gets brought a sandwich and soda. He showers. He changes his clothes. He types a lot. He does spy sweeps. He picks his nose. Well, not the last one, but it may as well have been.

Another problem is that while you mistrust Dr. Roth (like you're supposed to), Cadel's not all that likeable either. He's a snot. A precocious, whiny, dangerous snot. He ties up Sydney traffic for three hours with a bomb threat when he's nine because of the challenge. He ruins the lives of the entire twelfth grade because they don't like him (he's only 13), he creates a dating service in order to gather data for predicting human behavior (well, not such a bad idea), and he's arrogant. After a while, he learns empathy, thanks to Kay-Lee, his on-line friend, and other circumstances. But, by then, I was so fed up with the twists and turns and keeping everyone straight that I didn't really care whether or not Cadel got what he deserved or whether he deserved what he got.

And, for a thriller, it just wasn't all that thrilling. Less than halfway through the book, I was bored with the whole thing. I caught the "thriller phase is supposed to start now" clue on page 249. A hundred pages later, it was still in supposed to start mode. It just moved too slowly. Thrillers are supposed to be intense, exciting. Thrilling. Evil Genius had too much convoluted build up, weighed down with details: too many people, too many events, too many twists, too much confusion. And there wasn't enough, or a satisfying, pay off in the end. By the time the Big Secret is finally revealed, the impact of it was lost on me. I found myself thinking, "Who really cares? Who is really going to stick stuck it to get to this point?"

And that's not a good thing.

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