Saturday, April 12, 2008

Everyone Loves a Bad Boy

Whatever it may say about me as a person, I admit it: I have a thing for the bad boy genius. Cadel Piggott of Catherine Jinks’s Evil Genius (ages 12-14), and most recently, Genius Squad (ages 12-14), gives Artemis Fowl and Alex Rider a run for their money.

Underneath his curly blond hair and wide blue eyes lie formidable computer hacking skills, what one may call a pliable moral code, and once, under the tutelage of his “therapist” A.K.A. Chancellor of the Axis Institute for World Domination, Thaddeus Roth, an uncanny ability to not get caught. After graduating high school at age thirteen, Cadel is enrolled at the Axis Institute founded by his father, Phineas Darkkon (who, incidentally, is in jail for a number of schemes). Naturally, Cadel’s best courses are “Infiltration” and “Basic Lying.” However, there’s one lesson that keeps giving him trouble, no matter how he tries to calculate variables and manipulate outcomes: human nature is a slippery system not easily hacked. Filled with disguises, intrigues, betrayals and cross-betrayals, poisoned nail polish, narrow escapes, terrible stinks, and the occasional twinge of conscience, Evil Genius is perfect for any villain-lover.

Once you have devoured Evil Genius, you can go straight to its new sequel, Genius Squad. Here a (mostly) reformed Cadel is desperate to escape foster care and get back to a computer after the explosive dissolution of the Axis Institute and disappearance of its most dangerous professors. Just when the foster-sibling tension and constant surveillance seem about to drive our villain-hero crazy, the “Genius Squad” approaches Cadel and his friend Sonja about infiltrating and taking down GenoME, a pet project of Phineas Darkkon. It wouldn’t be Catherine Jinks if things were always what they seemed. Many more plot twists, kidnappings, heeled ankle boots, super spyware and general villainous mayhem await Cadel in this installment—because, of course, there’s a third on the way, promisingly titled Genius Wars.

Reynie, Kate, Sticky, and Constance, though not particularly “bad” boys or girls, are wicked geniusy. This other favorite set of gifted kids, are soon to return in The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey (ages 8-12; May 08). If you missed these crafty youngsters the first time around, be sure to pick up their debut, The Mysterious Benedict Society (Ages 8-12). In answering a peculiar ad in the classifieds, the four children are selected to help Mr. Benedict prevent what he calls, “The Thing to Come,” by infiltrating the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened. Disguised as a school for gifted children, it is actually being used by Mr. Curtain (uncannily identical to Mr. Benedict) for a particularly evil brand of world domination. In their new adventure, Mr. Benedict disappears, and the fab four must once again put their unique talents to work, as no one else can.

These books follow in the footsteps of Harry Potter, with boarding school settings peopled by gifted kids. Unlike Hogwarts, there is nothing as innocent as Divination or Herbology being taught at the Axis Institute or the Learning Institute. These books probe the ambiguity of good and evil and take the dangerous process of identifying friend and foe to a whole new level. In my opinion, that’s what makes them such remarkable reads.


carterbham said...

Great review! I just picked up "Genius Squad" yesterday and I'm looking forward to the next Benedict Society next month.

Three Little Monkeys said...

That Michelle's pretty genuisy herself! Have you gotten to Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey yet? We'd love to hear your thoughts!