People tend to act a little odd around Jackson Opus. Bus drivers break all the traffic laws and nearly cause accidents, just to get him where he needs to be on time. Star basketball players miss easy free throws. Grown men start doing rooster imitations, and cafeteria ladies nearly drown students in gravy.
It's not that Jax is trying to control people -- he's controlling them without even trying.
In Gordon Korman's "The Hypnotists" (first in a projected series), Jax thinks he's just an ordinary kid surrounded by a bunch of weird, extremely suggestible people -- until the day Dr. Elias Mako invites him to join the secretive and prestigious Sentia Institute. There, the truth comes out: Jax is a hypnotist.
In fact, he's actually the culmination of two powerful lines of hypnotists, the Opus family and the Sparks family, and thus he has the potential to become one of the most gifted hypnotists who ever lived. Dr. Mako is eager to have him begin training right away to develop that potential.
Naturally, it's not long before sinister forces want to use Jax's powers for their own ends -- specifically, to ensure that a certain candidate wins the Democratic nomination for president -- and will stop at nothing to get their way.
Korman has long been one of my favorite YA authors, and his new book fully lives up to his reputation. Like many of his heroes, Jax is a likable, unpretentious young man from a nice family, just trying to live a normal life, until circumstances start spiraling out of control. Confused and under incredible pressure, he still struggles to do the right thing and to outwit the villains.
Korman shows a wide emotional range here. For one thing, he has fun presenting an alternate historical timeline full of hypnotists. In his telling, everyone from Churchill to Eminem was a secret "mind-bender," and various members of the Opus family caused everything from the Russian Revolution to the invention of the telephone. There's even a "lost first draft of The Lord of the Rings in which Gandalf was a mind-bender, not a wizard." Korman's trademark humor, though not as uproarious as in some of his earlier books, is sprinkled throughout the pages of "The Hypnotists."
But on the other hand, his young hero experiences more darkness than most Korman heroes. He grapples with the moral and ethical implications of his strange gift, constantly needing to make decisions both large and small regarding his ability to control people. He's forced to make terrible choices to protect his family and friends. And he suffers severe physical and emotional symptoms when the bad guys really get going on their work of using his powers for their own benefit.
Unlike many of his fellow YA writers, though, Korman manages to present this darkness in such a way that we sympathize with Jax, but aren't overwhelmed with bleakness and despair ourselves. There's still hope that everything will turn out all right, and with support from a ragtag group of fellow hypnotists, Jax is able to find a way to realize that hope.
"The Hypnotists" is a clean, enjoyable, fast-paced read that offers a young protagonist with a strong moral compass. With this book, Korman's new series is off to a great start.
Image copyright Scholastic Press. Review copy from the reviewer's personal collection.
Gina Dalfonzois editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.
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