Cadel Piggott is fascinated by systems, which has led to a police caution for computer crime at the age of seven. His adoptive parents' response is to provide a counsellor for his behavioural problems. However, rather than "normalising" this bright spark, Dr. Thaddeus Roth subtly encourages his asocial behaviour. Thaddeus appeals to Cadel's intelligence and sense of self-worth:
You can only 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. (p. 12)
Cadel applies this lesson to a study of his Australian hometown's transport system and disables Sydney's rail network during rush hour. Thaddeus rewards Cadel by telling him he is not an orphan. His father is Dr. Darkkon, a criminal mastermind imprisoned in a maximum-security jail in the U.S.; Cadel was smuggled into Australia as an infant and the authorities aren't aware of his existence.
Contemptuous of his adoptive parents yet eager to please adults who take him seriously, Cadel soaks up amorality from his mentor and Dr. Darkkon. Communication with the latter uses bizarre secret devices—the reflective surface of the prison's toilet bowl and a DNA-wired transmitter, for example. At the same time, Cadel is accelerating through the school system, isolated from his age group by his intelligence and from his classmates by his youth and small size. Catherine Jinks builds the reader's sympathy here, with Cadel as the underdog. She is able to maintain this even when Cadel plots the downfall of his whole high school class, whose members are five years his senior. He becomes sufficiently skilled at gossip, eavesdropping, and emotional manipulation to ensure that they all fail their graduation exams whilst he gets perfect marks. This destruction of his tormentors engenders schadenfreude in the reader, but it is clear that Cadel is motivated by his own pleasure in controlling the system rather than by the impact he has on those around him.
After such a graduation, Thaddeus recommends Cadel to the Axis Institute. The Piggotts are persuaded by the quality of the facilities despite the small faculty, whilst Cadel learns that the institute is funded by his father. Dr. Darkkon believes that "most humans [are] the equivalent of junk DNA" (p. 19) and that current society holds back brilliant people by imposing a foolish system of "fossilized values and blunted minds" (p. 84). The institute is his tool for transforming society. Most of the staff and students believe it to be a university of evil, even if the philosophy lecturer's classes are about redefining evil so that their work is beyond such a negative concept. The staff are master criminals, and the students are, at the least, sociopaths. However, they are often presented as either funny or contemptible, and we are introduced to this wider cast just in time for them to start killing each other off.
Jinks tries to retain our sympathy while self-centred Cadel sails along with little more engagement than he experienced at high school. There is no threat to Cadel here; as the acknowledged son of Dr. Darkkon, he is off-limits. As a result, the mayhem he observes doesn't seem particularly dark or serious. It is only as Cadel builds a friendship outside Thaddeus's control that he begins to wonder whether his genius is really sufficient reason to sidestep all of society. Cadel has created an online subscription dating agency as a source of funds, providing fake correspondents to keep the fees coming in. When Kay-Lee, a maths aficionado, joins, Cadel unexpectedly finds himself intellectually challenged. Having recognised each other as mathematical equals, their online exchanges range widely, giving Cadel the innovative experience of self-doubt and guilt over his deceptions. He cannot be truly honest, because he is still in disguise—though we suspect that Kay-Lee is too. Thaddeus recognises the effect the relationship is having and attempts to break the growing bond, but his methods raise Cadel's suspicions.
The careful construction of Cadel's environment, so painstaking in the book's first half, pays off in the speed with which the narration can now move. As Cadel pursues newfound doubts, he recognises the squeeze he is in. His whole life has been designed to make him the perfect inheritor of a criminal empire; when he learns that even his adoption was carefully arranged, he realises that his upbringing has totally twisted him. Recognising his genuine concern for Kay-Lee, Cadel begins to understand that pure self-interest is not sufficient—but nor can he come to trust society. His attempt to escape the life planned out for him is principally a reaction to the discovery of how much of it has been manipulated, rather than a simple recognition of good and evil.
Jinks does a remarkable job of indicating right and wrong without Cadel having to be a clear avatar of morality himself. It is a mark of the quality of the writing that she can show what is happening to Cadel, the way he cracks, without having to make blunt statements about his state of mind. Trained to be suspicious of everybody, particularly “the authorities,” Cadel has no one to turn to but an online friend who believed him to be a thirty-four-year-old Canadian professor. He employs all his intelligence and the skills he has learned at the Axis Institute to escape, but his plans unravel disastrously.
Evil Genius is presented as a Young Adult book, and I think it would satisfy a fourteen-year-old as much as it delighted me. The protagonist is young, and very occasionally words an older reader might know are explained, but the book would rather stretch its audience than speak childishly. The Axis Institute could have been presented as an anti-Hogwarts, but the idea doesn't even come to the reader's mind. Perhaps there is more of a resemblance to the Artemis Fowl series, but this book is vastly superior. Jinks never underestimates her audience, and builds a rich and morally complex plot. There are messages in the text but no preaching. Even when, in the final chapter, Cadel begins to learn the language of social responsibility, there is room for ambiguity of purpose and usage. Appropriately, the book finishes with a code, a direct challenge to readers to employ our own intellectual skills to understand the conclusion.