I still don’t like YA: Catherine Jinks’ Evil Genius.
“What if Lex Luthor ran Hogwarts?”
It’s the kind of elevator pitch that could launch a ridiculously long crossover fanfic (though now that I think of it, Zatanna and Etrigan would make short work of Voldemort, but I digress). Or, in the case of Catherine Jinks, it’s the basis for an original, non-fanficcy novel: Evil Genius.
I picked up this book for like fifty cents at some fundraiser thrift sale thing, based mostly on the fact that it’s called Evil Genius. The inside cover even has a syllabus for the Axis Institute, with listed classes like “forgery” and “assassination” and such. The book has sat on my to-read pile for quite awhile- I’ve only recently buckled down and gotten to it.
The book’s also firmly a “young adult” novel…which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but at the same time, it didn’t really rise above some of my preconceived notions of the genre, either. This mostly stems from the book’s protagonist, a superintelligent kid named Cadel. Ridiculous name? Check. Unloving adoptive family? Check. Being an insufferable little shit? Check. There’s not a love triangle or a set of arbitrary dystopian rules, though, so I guess Jinks gets points there?
Anyway, the plot of Evil Genius is fairly straightforward. We meet Cadel at a young age, where he shows himself to be absolutely brilliant, but also kind of an asshole in the way that little kids tend to be. Because he’s a computer and engineering genius, Cadel starts screwing around with computers and hacking and stuff, and generally causing trouble in a subtle kind of way.
He winds up seeing a therapist by the name of Thaddeus Roth, who, as it turns out, is EVIL, and encourages Cadel to also do bad stuff (but not get caught). See, Thaddeus is in the employ of Cadel’s REAL father, one Dr. Darkkon. No, really.
Despite being in prison (having been arrested for doing the sort of supervillainy stuff that’s pretty much your only career path when you’re named Dr. Darkkon), Cadel’s supervillain dad manages to run a conspiracy, a lot of which centers around the Axis Institute. The Axis Institute is basically a place to train supervillains- which is a concept fun enough to get my interest.
It’s a shame Jinks doesn’t do much with it.
Here’s the thing about this book. Not only are there mad scientists, but the book also has pyrokinetics, an amphibious butler, a kid who has the mutant power of smelling really bad, and a geneticist who’s trying to turn himself into a vampire. And, of course, it’s all ostensibly overseen by a guy who calls himself Dr. Darkkon and expects to be taken seriously. It’s a comic book setting, pretty much…but it feels like Jinks is holding herself back, pretending that she’s writing a serious novel. I mean, I don’t care if your book is gonzo (in fact, I kind of love it), but you should at least have the guts to go all out with it. I almost got the feeling that Jinks was kind of embarrassed about some of the nuttier concepts she throws in.
And heck, for a book that’s based around Evil Hogwarts (or arguably Evil Xavier’s School for Gifted Children, if you want to be more precise), the actual “class” parts of the book can be kind of boring. Most of them are glossed over, but apart from some forgery and some business about disguises, there’s none of the fun “mwa ha ha!” kind of evil geniusing you’d expect from a book called Evil Genius. No death rays, no giant robots, no mutant cockroaches, not even so much as a menacing zeppelin. There’s a second Evil Academy campus that’s supposed to have the really weird stuff, but we never visit it over the course of the novel…which makes me wonder why Jinks even included it in the first place.
There’s not much to say about Cadel’s fellow students, either, as most of them wind up dead or disappeared over the course of the semester…which kind of makes sense, except that you’d think an Evil Academy would put a little more effort into keeping their eventual world domination minions alive. A lot of these deaths happen off camera, though, which just seems dull.
On top of that, most of the various schemes that the various villains cook up over the course of the book don’t make any goddamn sense. And not even in the fun, Cobra Commander nonsensical way, either. For example, we’re told that Dr. Darkkon has ridiculous resources, to the point where he can guide his criminal empire from prison…but at the same time, the plan that got him thrown in prison basically amounted to: “demand $500 Million based on a threat you can’t back up.” I mean, at least Dr. Evil waits ’til he has a nuclear missile before making his demands. Jeez.
Likewise, Cadel hatches a few schemes of his own over the course of the novel. Early on, he mostly gets by through authorial fiat for his hacking and social manipulation skills. It’s not quite on the level of CSI’s ‘computers are magic!’ perspective, but it’s close. Then, a little ways into the book, Cadel gets the bright idea to start raising some money…by making a fake dating website. That only apparently has 68 customers. Cadel then basically catfishes them for their subscription fees- which strikes me as a pretty crappy business model, especially on the work-to-profit ratio.
Really, the only reason there’s a dating website subplot in the book is so Cadel can meet a girl (who’s posing as someone else, natch) who’s smart enough he can emotionally connect with her. We then see how Cadel is so stupid he doesn’t realize he’s been found out when the girl suddenly cuts off all communication, and when he starts getting random phone calls with women yelling “how could you!” You’d think a so-called-genius would be a little sharper about that sort of thing.
Anyway, Cadel eventually realizes that having an insane (and arguably incompetent) supervillain for a dad is a Bad Thing, and that His Whole Life Is a Lie, so he decides he’s going to make an escape. To cover his tracks, he manipulates the Axis Institute’s faculty against each other, which goes about as well you’d expect. Things go to hell, and then for the last quarter of the book or so, most of the chapters are devoted to Cadel being captured by someone, trying to escape, and then getting re-captured and drug around until the book just kind of ends. Meh.
One of Cadel’s go-to tactics was to disguise himself as a girl- he’s like 14 or 15 in the book, and he’s apparently young and pretty, so it works. Not really played for laughs, or for any sense of gender-bending identity issues on Cadel’s part. Fair enough. It’s just that every now and again, Jinks makes it a bit…weird. For example, when Cadel first puts on the disguise, he’s nearly sexually assaulted by one of the faculty at the Axis Institute. Nothing explicit, and the evil teacher stops once he realizes who Cadel is, but still. Ew.
The second comes towards the end of the book, where Thaddeus sees Cadel in disguise, and immediately thinks he looks like Cadel’s dead mom. Which…strikes me as a bit weird, since again, Cadel’s a teenager, and even in drag, I doubt he’d look like a fully grown woman, and…uh, yeah. Consider my eyebrows quirked.
And you know what the kicker is? This book is long. Over 500 pages. I’ve got nothing against a lengthy read- but at the same time, I couldn’t help but find a lot of the pages to be a slog. I wound up muscling through the book mostly out of a sense of principle, that I wouldn’t let the book beat me. Still, this book could’ve easily been a hundred pages shorter.
There are two more books in the Evil Genius series- I’m pretty disinclined to seek them out. All and all, the book just didn’t ‘click,’ for me- not because it’s a YA novel, but rather, because it’s a boring novel that fails to deliver on its promise.
Seriously, how hard is it to add a freeze ray or something?