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I bought this book for my son, in the hopes of getting him interested in a new series. But he does go through phases with his books, and at the moment he is back to wanting books with some illustration, even if it is very limited - so I haven't been able to persuade him to give this a try. He has recently taken to the Astrosaurs series and with over 20 in the original series alone, this should last him for at least a couple of months. But - before trying to give this to my son - I read this myself as I usually do with Young Adult books. After all, my oldest has only just turned 8, and if they choose for me to read aloud, my youngest is only 4. It isn't so much that I censor the material - but that I at least like to be prepared for anything awkward that might come up - although there are certain subjects I do feel are not appropriate at all for such young children.
I would never, in a million years have picked this book just to read myself. It really doesn't sound very good at all - a school for supervillains sounds like a better plot for a comic book than a novel, and in fact there is a comic book group with the exact same name: H.I.V.E - Higher Institute of Villainous Education is a group which appears in the Teen Titan's DVDs years before this book came out - I'm surprised there has not been a copyright dispute. So I was expecting a rather comic book like plot with a bunch of evil children.
I was actually very surprised by this book. The basic premise is quite unbelievable and clearly aimed towards children, but the overall writing and character development is excellent. I can see now why Amazon kept recommending this to me - that Amazon computer knows me better than my best friends! This is very much a character driven story of friendship and loyalty, with the super villain part just being a bit extra. There is action, a few weapons, cool gadgets, martial arts, a brilliant computer brain which is capable of independent thought and an absolutely wonderfully monstrous, genetically altered carnivorous plant, as well as a rebellion against adults / authority theme, but the over riding theme is friendship. In this respect I believe the book follows the trend set by Harry Potter and the later C.H.E.R.U.B. series of a school for unusual children growing up together, and the friendships and relationships between these children.
The main character in this series is 13 year old Otto Malpense. Abandoned at an orphanage as an infant, Otto spends his first 13 years there - the author apparently is unaware of the high demand for adoptable babies - but perhaps some other reason led to him being left in this institution. But life isn't all bad, Otto is a genius of such a scale as to make Einstein appear a dullard. He quickly takes control of the orphanage, easily manipulating the kind but not very forceful woman in charge, running a number of shady schemes to bring money in, arranging to be home educated so he can teach himself rather than be bored in school etc... In fact life is looking pretty good for Otto until the new Prime Minister decides to close the orphanage down. Little does he know what a disastrous ( and hilarious) effect this will have on his career.
But while the prime minister proved no match for Otto, his little escapade has brought him to the attention of some very shadowing figures. The next thing he knows he is drugged and wakes up in a helicopter alongside his soon to be best friend Wing Fanchu. He is taken to a secret school inside what appears to be a volcano where he is told he will remain for next 6 years. Otto is used to running his own show, there is no way he is taking instruction in anything for the next 6 years, but these people do not look the sort that take no for answer.
Otto and Wing immediately decide they won't be sticking around for graduation ceremonies and join forces with two more prospective escapees. Most of the students of H.I.V.E have been sent there by their parents, members of a a large global criminal enterprise. Laura however was scooped by H.I.V.E just before the government could lift her for hacking into the defense departments computers and using their satellites in a minor facebook war with another girl. Shelby is an accomplished burglar, who steals for thrills rather than money, she remains a more obscure character. She does make friends,and is quite loyal, but seems to erect shields between herself and others as well.
These four are determined to escape the facility, but this does take some effort and planning, and in the meantime a strong friendship grows between the members of this group. Without realising it, Otto for the first time has a family of sorts.
There is some violence in this book, but most of it is quite mild. There is reference to the fact that Wing's mother has been murdered, and if I remember correctly, a few security guards are killed in a science experiment gone very bad, but the violence is not graphic and not excessive. The main characters are quite young, so while there may be some mild attraction - there are no romantic or sexual themes. I would have no problem with either of my sons being reading or listening to this story. I recognise some parents could really see this as setting a bad example though with criminal behaviour such as computer scams and theft glorified.
It is of course a child's story, but I ended up really enjoying it. In fact I have since read tow more books in this series and ordered a another. It has proved wonderful material for me to steal from when creating my children's own bedtime stories - as they are in a habit of now of having at least one long made up story every night, which can never be the same story and leaves me scrambling for ideas. With a few alterations, they have enjoyed the basic storyline quite a bit.
I also have to admit I have really enjoyed this myself. I like the the way the characters have been developed, and especially like the strong themes of loyalty and friendship. I like the fact that this group does discover just how valuable friendship really is, and I like the idea of the misfits finding a place they really belong. The small war between children and adults is fun as well, and surprisingly, considering this is meant to be a book about villains, there are some fairly strong moral standards as well. the villains are not really as evil as they let on. Almost all of the characters are quite likable. There are however a couple of bullies who are not at all likable, but this adds humour to the book.
As much as I like this - I am quite immature. Many of the Young Adult books do sell to a large number of adults as well, but I really don't see this series taking off with a large number of adults. I feel this book would best suit ages 8 -14 and the reading level is certainly much lower than books like Muchamore's C.H.E.R.U.B. series. I would estimate that it takes me perhaps 2 - 3 hours to finish a book at the most. I also feel this book is more likely to appeal to boys than girls, but of course there will be some girls, like myself who enjoy this type of book, and there are two very strong female characters as well. I feel the easy reading level and very boy friendly text make this series ideal for reluctant readers - the majority of whom are male, as well as older children with a lower reading level. I would place the reading level as about age 8.