Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks is a satirical gem of dark, dark humor that should appeal to readers of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. However, the “hero” (or “antihero”) of the novel, Cadel Piggot (aka Cadel Darkkon) relies on his incredible genius to survive rather than a magic wand and spells like Harry. Adopted by people hired to play your parents; discouraged from having any friends; raised mostly by aloof nannies; having a criminal mastermind for a psychoanalyst who, in conjunction with Phineas Darkkon, a jailed man you’re told is your real father, runs a world-wide crime organization and Axis University, which offers courses in subjects ranging from forgery to embezzlement to making poisons and bombs - face it, what sort of life would you have?
Showing early signs himself of relatively minor forms of evil, a genius for figuring out the weaknesses of the Australian railroad, traffic, and banking systems, and a desire to seek revenge on anyone who gets in his way, young Cadel seems destined to attend the Axis University his father and Thaddeus Roth, his analyst, have set up. Because of a few scattered expletives and descriptions of violence, Evil Genius probably is not as well-suited for younger readers but would be better suited for older teens. I, though (an adult), thought it was great, as did my 13-year-old daughter.
You can’t help but to root for Cadel Piggot to make it in life, despite his early bent at age seven toward anti-social and evil behavior. There’s the odd bit of stealing from his nanny by using her credit cards, for instance, which Stuart and Lanna Piggot (not their real names; they’re the couple hired to “adopt” Cadel) relate to Thaddeus Roth:
“He used to charge things to her credit card. She used it so much that of course he picked up on it.” [Lanna says this]
Cadel is far from “normal”, we learn as the story progresses, but despite his progress toward ever more evil deeds and being groomed by Phineas to take over his organization, Catherine Jinks makes Cadel a sympathetic figure for the most part. He is small for his age, feared by many (even some of his teachers prior to entering the Axis University at thirteen) because of his gargantuan intellect, and used and molded without his knowledge for much of his life. His own evil actions and attempts to gain attention, therefore, become understandable, however much they should not be condoned.
“He’s a funny kid,” Stuart admitted. “He’s not normal.”
He has an affinity for systems of all kinds enables him to view complex systems like the traffic or railroad ones of Sydney in his mind. Cadel has been banned from using computers by the Piggots, but Thaddeus Roth allows him to use his:
“Next time,” he murmured, whatever you do, don’t get caught.” Thaddeus quickly goes from merely being Cadel’s psychoanalyst to acting as his mentor in crime, seeding in his fertile brain suggestions for wreaking havoc. For example, he comments to Cadel about the Sydney Rail Network,
“You can tell whether you’ve mastered a system if you isolate and identify its weakest
point. If you knock that out, and the whole system collapses, then you know you’ve got
a handle on it.”
Thaddeus’s continuing aid and advice serve Cadel in good stead as he is steadily promoted by schools he attends to higher grade levels until the time he reaches Axis University.
Some other reviews I have read of Evil Genius seem as though the reviewers just don’t get the book, believing that it is meant to be taken seriously.
It should be fairly obvious to most readers that the novel is meant to be darkly comic and satirical, especially upon seeing Axis University’s course schedule at the beginning of the book and reading comments like Thaddeus’s to Cadel,
“You should never admit to anything,” he said. “Denial is the second rule after ‘Don’t get caught.’ You must always remember that, Cadel.”
One reviewer even stated that Cadel wasn’t evil enough to get into the Axis University on his own and had to have his father pull strings to get him in. Since the man Cadel believes is his father owns the university, this is patently false - it isn’t a case of Cadel’s being evil enough at all. Phineas Darkkon just has Thaddeus let the teachers and students there know to lay off messing with Cadel and that there will be consequences if any harm befall him.
The same reviewer said that Cladel’s father lived in a toilet in prison and vomited in it - also not true. Phineas Darkkon tries to communicate
with Thaddeus and Cadel by various means, utilizing nanotechnology and a DNA/electronics mix via eyeglasses and a device hidden in a corn on
his foot. The toilet is where one such device is hidden, and Phineas has to pretend to throw up into the toilet to try to fool his guards - a far cry from actually living in a toilet.
Evil Genius keeps readers entertained with several plot twists and turns until the end. It merits a wide audience, though some may be put off by its depictions of violence and the occasional use of bad words (such as “Piss off!”). Still, one hopes that it is destined to become a classic of young adult literature. I recommend it highly and look forward to reading more from Catherine Jinks in the future.