Sunday, May 25, 2008

Axis of Evil: Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks

At seven Cadel Piggott is already an ominously intelligent child prodigy. Apprehended for serious computer hacking, at police insistence he is dragged by his distant adoptive parents to meet with a psychologist, Thaddeus Roth, whose ancient mossy office has "a rich smell of decay."

Thaddeus, however, turns out to be an unlikely ally. Warning him "not to get caught again," he allows Cadel to use his supposed therapy sessions to continue his computer hacking and introduces him to his purported father, master criminal Phineas Darkkon, who communicates from his prison cell in America through a series of nanotech transmitters, including his toilet and his contact lenses. While Cadel, limited by a court-ordered ban against computer use, contents himself with sabotaging the Sydney train and highway systems and causing his senior high school class to fail their final exams, Darkkon and Thaddeus openly set him upon a course to shape him into the evil genius who fulfills his father's vision of world domination.

When Cadel graduates from high school at the age of thirteen, Darkkon enrolls him in the Axis Institute of World Domination, where his first-year courses include embezzlement, forgery, poisoning, infiltration, and advanced computer hacking. In this convoluted atmosphere of brilliant backstabbers, Cadel finds only one friend of a sort, a good-hearted misfit student named Gazo whose body generates such a foul stench that he must wear a protective "spacesuit" and helmet. For companionship, Cadel sets up a bogus computer dating company, Partner Post, where in the avatar of a Canadian mathematics professor Eiran Dempster, he falls for a mathematically gifted woman who calls herself "Primo."

Surrounded by "freaks and geeks" and evil minds who destroy anyone who gets in their way, Cadel's infiltrations of the communications within the Axis Institute progressively reveal that he is ensnared in a web of wickedness which is almost beyond belief.

"For twelve years he had lived in a cage. A trap. His whole life was a prison, carefully designed to stop him from even wanting to get out."

The second half of this hefty novel is concerned with Cadel's efforts to extricate himself from this tyranny of terror and evil. When even Primo's emails are discovered by Darkkon, to protect her Cadel attempts to elude his minders by escaping into what he hopes will be a new life. Jinks builds layer upon layer of conspiracy and cyberchase as this hefty thriller makes its way toward its end, which seems a respite rather than conclusion to this saga.

Evil Genius is a science fiction thriller with a twisted coming-of-age theme in which anti-hero Cadel is eventually repulsed by the utter evil he sees and the web of malevolence Darkkon envisages. Although much of the action is more cerebral than actual, the book is a genuine page turner, with disguises, secret message drops, murders, kidnappings, escapes, and chase scenes as well. For readers who are fans of the Artemis Fowl series, Evil Genius takes the genre to a new level.

A sequel, Genius Squad, which Publisher's Weekly calls "as gripping, devilish, and wonderfully dark as it predecessor," was published May 1.



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