Let’s say there’s a secret school populated by a secret subculture of people living in a world alongside ours. Let’s say there’s a kid who has no idea this subculture exists, but he’s been doing things that would bring it to his attention. Let’s say that, one day, he’s accepted into this secret school, where he’s the smartest kid in his year, naturally good at everything, and has some sort of special connection to the head of the secret school.
You’d think you’d know what the story’s about and how it ends, wouldn’t you. You’d think you’re reading Harry Potter, or The Magicians, or Percy Jackson.
But let’s say the secret school is the place where the next generation of super-villains learns everything they need to know about the future of world domination. Changes things a bit, doesn’t it?
Umm… maybe not.
H.I.V.E.: Higher Institute of Villainous Education, by Mark Walden, is the first in a (so far) seven-book young-adult series of novels that borrows from the well-traveled genre tropes that gave us the three books I mentioned a few paragraphs ago.
H.I.V.E.‘s main character, Otto Malpense, is a white-haired thirteen-year-old British boy with the uncanny ability to comprehend everything he reads and understand the underlying principles of everything he sees. In general, he’s more a pragmatist than a villain — he came to the attention of H.I.V.E. not because he did something evil for evil’s sake, but because he was trying to save the orphanage that was the only home he’d ever known. It just so happened to involve making the British Prime Minister look like an idiot.
Otto’s contemporaries can be picked out of most any genre lineup:
- Wing Fanchu, an Asian boy who’s good at martial arts and is very honorable.
- Laura, a Scottish girl good with technology.
- Shelby, an American cat burglar.
- Nigel, the kid who’s there because his father was a super-villain and is only good at one class — go on, guess which one*.
- Franz, an overweight German kid who only talks about food and is also not very good at most classes, although he takes quickly to the ones teaching students how to use politics and economics to take down the good guys.
Other than Nigel and Franz, Otto and his classmates are not happy to be at H.I.V.E. They think they’ve been kidnapped by the school’s headmaster, Dr. Nero, and all they want to do is get home. But to do that, they’ll have to fight off another genre lineup, this one comprised of schoolteachers:
- The headmaster who “takes an interest” in the main character.
- The absent-minded technology professor.
- The drill sergeant who teaches physical education.
- The one who was turned into an animal.
- The second-in-command who also can control your mind.
- Professor Sprout**.
- The ninja.
- The artificial intelligence/computer system that sees everything and knows everything, but really just wants to be human (and if it starts performing Shakespeare or tries to hold Commander Riker hostage in one of Dr. Crusher’s plays in a future novel, I’m hanging it all up now).
So far, I’ve given H.I.V.E. a lot of grief over its use of genre conventions, but I hope I’ve done it good-naturedly enough to keep you from being put off the book. I mean, it’s YA; it’s sort of YA’s job to use genre conventions to make characters relatable and understandable. And the story itself is something most kids can understand: being taken from your home because you’re special, but once you get away, all you want is to go back again. I mean, come on, how many of us (when we were kids***) have thought “I’m smarter/better/awesomer than this life I’m currently leading; when will I get to go to that secret school for wizards/villains/demigods?” I mean, you wouldn’t believe how hard I wished to be pulled 300 years into the future so I could go to Starfleet Academy.
It didn’t happen, obviously****. Hence my love for genre fiction (escapism) and a fondness for stories using the genre plot we see in H.I.V.E.
The storytelling is pretty good. The characters are well-rounded and often funny. The adventure is… um… adventurous. If anything is poorly-done, it’s the occasional forays into Dr. Nero’s world — we need them to forward the plot and explain whatever couldn’t be infodumped by the Contessa (Professor McGonagall) during the school tour, but they take away from the important part of the story, which is Otto and his friends. When Rowling did it in the Harry Potter novels, she confined it to the first few chapters, sort of a “meanwhile, back at the Hall of Justice” thing before we got into whatever adventure Harry is facing in the current book, and I could handle that. But the whole point of third-person-limited is that you only see things through the eyes of your main character, and I think that, by using the Dr. Nero scenes to explain important plot points, the story misses out on the opportunity for more adventures or further characterization of our heroes. For example, they could’ve overheard Nero’s staff dinner because Laura was working on an extra-credit project or something, instead of the author just showing us said dinner.
Of course, that could also have just been a homage to your old-school heroes-vs-villains TV shows and movies where the hero’s journey is briefly put aside to show what the bad guys are doing right now.
I rather enjoyed H.I.V.E., to be honest. I think the storytelling moves at a good clip, the characters are funny, and the idea behind the story is novel enough that I’m interested in reading more books in the series. As a YA book, it reads quickly enough, and is short enough, that you can probably squeeze it into a week’s worth of lunch breaks. I’m not sure how the “intended” audience — young adults — would actually like it, but I know that I got a kick out of it, and I think you will too.
Note to Parents: Because it’s a YA novel, H.I.V.E. doesn’t contain anything truly objectionable. There’s some bullying and some violence, but nothing more explicit than, say, Prisoner of Azkaban. So, if your kids can handle that, they can definitely handle H.I.V.E.. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.
* If you said “Herbology”… err, that is, Botany, give yourself a pat on the head.
** The one who is fairly nice and takes care of students who don’t feel like they belong. Also, she teaches Herbology. I mean Botany. Oh, whatever, it’s Professor freaking Sprout from the Harry Potter novels. Just go with it.
*** Or, you know, right now. Either way.
**** OR DID IT???