Very often one worries about how book series will end: does it all end with a bang? Does it end with a pile of crumpled kleenex next to you? Does it simply stop and assume the adventure goes on? Or is there no ending at all (arguably the worst of the possibilities, there being nothing so bad as being left hanging where storytelling is concerned)?
While Catherine Jinks’ The Genius Wars does bring the Genius series (Evil Genius, Genius Squad) to an end, she does it with an emotional bang rather than one bearing C4 and AK-47s. And what an emotional bang.
But that was always the heart of the series, as it turns out.
Among YA adventure series, Genius stands out as a fairly realistic portrayal of what can actually be accomplished today by a very determined and brilliant teenager, with a few tweaks here and there. It has more in common with Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother than with Artemis Fowl, where computer hacking technology really is explained. The Genius Wars features, at its core, a computer graphics gimmick, but that core is surrounded by wardriving, tapping into wireless networks, exposing buffer overflow exploits, and the difference in mindset beteween hackers and developers (well, most of the time).
These topics aren’t delved into as deeply as they are in Little Brother, but they do set up a grounded backdrop for the core of the story: the relationship between fathers and sons. And boy, is that ever complicated in the Genius series.
Our protagonist, Cadel, can be thought of as having five fathers by this point in time:
an initial adoptive father (and mother) who didn’t value his life any farther than “his old man will have us killed if we don’t take care of him,” unrevealed until the early evenings of Evil Genius;
an old crime boss and professed evil genius in life imprisonment, who directed the manipulation of Cadel’s life to raise him up as evil heir apparent;
a small-time crook who turned out to be Cadel’s “real” biological father;
Saul Greenius, new adoptive father and, ever since the start of the series, a policeman covering the international case involving Cadel and….
Prosper English, who did the actual manipulation of events around Cadel’s childhood, a supposed psychologist who more directly raised Cadel for the longest period than anybody else.
Each father has left their mark (scars, really, in the case of everybody except Greenius), but Prosper English rises above them all as a sinister, dangerous figure who dupes everyone and is always several steps ahead of the game. Always. You can never trust him, he lies as naturally as he sips a fine glass of riesling, and he is utterly merciless and self-serving. His reach is unnerving, and his motives at times inscrutable. He’s far smarter than Voldemort would ever be, and more insidius than Count Olaf could ever manage. If English ever feels that he must get you out of the way… nothing will stop him.
And naturally by this point in time, Cadel is a danger to him, knowing his ways and having actively helped the police in the past. But no longer; Cadel now wants to lead a normal life in the custody of Saul Greenius, and no longer wants to track down Prosper and thus become a target.
Yes. Fat chance of that happening, with the stakes already miles high when the book opens. And what transpires is worse than what almost every Roald Dahl villain manages ((Almost. We are talking about Roald Dahl here.)) as Cadel’s new life is violently blasted away person by person. And the way he responds increases his fears that he’s just like English—the last person he wants to resemble. It’s great how he does get called on his shit eventually as the book progresses, partially deconstructing the Adults Are Useless trope normally employed vigorously by YA adventures.
The ending is quite special. It can be read in mainly two ways, but in either reading it all ends badly for Cadel’s heart. I wouldn’t exactly call this, as Jinks has claimed, the settling of the matter between Prosper and Cadel. There’s an opening for more, I think, no matter how human Prosper has become in our eyes during the last third of the book, but sadly there is no more.
My main disappointment with the book is the lack of more Sonja and Cadel scenes. Sonja is an interesting character all by herself; she’s afflicted with severe cerebral palsy and needs a Stephen Hawking set-up to even communicate with those around her, and is very restricted in self-movement if removed from her motorized wheelchair. But she’s smart, was a member of the Genius Squad previous, and has a knack for encryption and math that far exceeds Cadel’s not insignificant own. And in spite of all her physical limitations (up to and including needing feeding and diapers), Cadel loves her. This is beautiful and we rarely, if ever, see its like in fiction, where most people are movie stars.
Some kind of epilogue, showing the future relationship between Cadel and Sonja, would be more than welcome. But alas, this is all we’re ever going to get outside of fan fiction.