Book Review – Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks
School stories have been popular since at least the 19th Century when Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes was published in 1857. I suppose that once school, and therefore childhood literacy, became common, young people wanted to read, and the one setting they all shared and could relate to was school. Such stories became a sort of genre, which I’ve heard labeled ‘English Schoolboy Stories’ or, alternately, ‘British school novels,’ although they can take place in any part of the former British Empire or other English-like setting. The main character in these is normally a student, often an outsider or social outcast, exceptionally talented or clever, and possibly an orphan.
I’m not an expert, although I have read a few books like this. I’m sure everyone reading this review is familiar with a recent offering that falls into this category — the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Stories set in schools continue to be written and read because all of us can relate to them. If you can read this, chances are you learned to do so in a school.
Whatever the genre is called, Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks definitely falls into it. The story is set in a private school in Australia. The protagonist, Cadel, lives with emotionally distant adoptive parents. He is exceptionally brilliant and is skipped ahead in public school, which of course makes him younger than his classmates and consequently a social outcast. He is seeing a counselor because of perceived emotional problems and past discretions. He comes to regard this man as more of a father figure than he does his adoptive father. His counselor offers him a spot at a relatively new private school for ‘exceptional’ students. Cadel does not yet know that this school was founded a few years ago specifically for him, to train and mentor him in the skills needed to become a criminal mastermind — like his real father. To avoid spoilers, this is as much of the plot as I will reveal.
The story is well constructed, the plot is complex but clear, the prose is exceptional, and the characterizations are good (but not great). There is a bit more here than in many YA books I’ve read, and the points are made more subtly. It touches on human behavior, social exclusion, emotional depravation, and various other sociological and psychological topics. It especially contrasts the behavior of people who truly care about others with that of those who regard them only as tools, and it shows the likely consequences of each.
The premise is a bit outlandish for something that turns out not to be quite as funny as one might expect from the title, although there are some humorous bits. Cadel is almost unbelievably bright, and his deviations into mathematics and the wonders of the periodic table may loose a few readers. At first, he is mean, vengeful, and thoroughly unlikeable. He disrupts things and causes distress to others just to see if he can do it. I could not force myself to care about such a person or about what happened to them. The story was intriguing enough that I stuck with it, though. Through a few encounters with people who accept him, he grows and becomes a much better person, especially in contrast to those around him who are responsible for his care. He learns the value of friendship when all his mentors tell him it has none other than as a means of manipulation.
This is an engaging, well written, and enjoyable story. It may not appeal to younger readers, but I can recommend it to most adults and young adult geniuses.