CM . . .
. Volume 21 Number 20 . . . . January 30, 2015
Junior high student Eli Frieden lives in Serenity, New Mexico, a small, isolated, extremely prosperous town dominated by a plastics factory and overseen by a private security force called the Surety. When Eli’s best friend Randy suddenly moves out of town, leaving behind a cryptic note, Eli and his friends discover that the idyllic suburban setting is a guise for a sinister scientific experiment in nature-vs.-nurture where children cloned from criminal masterminds are being raised in an environment free from war, crime, poverty and any negative thoughts. Overhearing that class bully Malek is also about to be “disappeared”, Eli convinces a group of the experiment subjects to escape from Serenity by disabling the signals that make them violently ill when they cross the town limits. After a wild ride on a plastics factory truck, most of the group make it to a freight train that they ride to find Randy.
The first in a new series, Masterminds is a complex psychological thriller that capitalizes on middle-graders’ need for independence and their healthy cynicism about adults’ intentions, not to mention the post-Hunger Games fascination with totalitarianism and mind control. The series of events that convinces even the most obedient among Eli’s friends of the malevolence of their parents is presented with enough subtlety and balance to be believable. In the excerpt above, an electrical storm briefly causes Eli’s computer to access the Internet instead of the squeaky-clean online world of Serenity, teaching him that the Boston Tea Party was a violent revolt, something he has never heard of before.
Despite the heart-quickening pace of the action, it is still the characterization that is the strongest element here. Chapters alternate between narration by Eli; Malek; gullible Hector; organized, credulous Amber; and Tori, whose heartbreak at discovering her “parents” are really researchers is particularly acute. This gives multiple viewpoints to the story and avoids the obvious us-vs.-them oversimplification that often plagues dystopian fiction. While the premise of the book is dramatic, the action is set so well into a pastiche of bland suburban family life that the effect tends to be more eerie than sinister. The story doesn’t so much strain credulity as bend it.
Still, there are occasional inconsistencies in the elaborate plot. Eli discovers the real Internet is accessible via leaking Wi-Fi at the plastics factory fence; when he and his friends spy on the factory with a webcam mounted on a kite, he declares that the pictures are being uploaded to a site on the real Internet, yet they are flying the kite from a nearby park, which would seem too far away to communicate with the forbidden wireless signal. At one point, Tori laments that she is a poor best friend because she’s told nothing about their discoveries to Amber, yet she previously did tell Amber part of the story (but was cut off when Amber refused to listen).
Overall, though, Masterminds is a fascinating story with a conclusion that is both satisfying and ambiguous, leaving readers yearning to know more of what will happen to Serenity and its former inmates.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario.
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