Rebel Genius by Mike DiMartino – Review

I am a great fan of Mike DiMartino’s work on Avatar the Last Airbender and the Legend of Korra. His book, Rebel Genius, is a solo effort and I approached it with great expectations. Will it live up to those standards? Can Rebel Genius mark the beginning of a new, great young adult series?

The Background

It is difficult to approach this book without making reference to DiMartino’s creative history. His background writing for Avatar and Legend of Korra went hand in hand with his working relationship with Bryan Konietzko.

Between the two of them they developed an incredible world, deep and complex characters, and some unbelievable visuals.

I had often wondered what each member of team ‘Bryke’ brought to the table in Avatar, so this solo effort appealed to me as the chance to see just that.

I will try to treat this book on its own merits rather than making continuous references back to Avatar. But that is difficult for one so familiar with them, and so I will limit my commentary on that. After all, DiMartino has seemingly gone out of his way to distance Rebel Genius from Avatar in a few instances.

Where Avatar was based mostly on near and far eastern culture, history and mythology, Rebel Genius is much more of a Renaissance-inspired world. Moreover, the magical system is less based on martial arts and more on artistic talent and imagination.

That being said, there are still some similarities. There is an evil overlord, much like Fire Lord Ozai; there is a suppression of certain magical abilities, and there is a ‘villain’ who may or may not turn good in the end.

The Premis

Rebel Genius takes place in a world where magic comes from people’s imagination, from their artistic and creative process. This takes the form of ‘geniuses’, little animal companions who possess gems of power and the ability to achieve everything from shining lights, to blasts of energy with nothing more than the flick of a pen. Naturally, this power is forbidden by the Supreme Ruler, though she is at liberty to use it herself.

Our hero, Giacomo, is rather a late bloomer. He lives in the sewers, an orphan boy who at first seems of no particular talent. Until, of course, his own Genius shows up and propels him into a world of adventure! A secret society of underground Rebel Geniuses defies the Supreme Ruler and trains young artists to realise the full power of their Genius.

Meanwhile, sinister forces are moving, dangerous plots are afoot, and the great artifacts are being hunted down one by one. Will this put the world in peril? And can Giacomo realise his Genius’ potential in time?

The Characters

Giacomo is a character that slowly grows on you. I do have to say that it took me a while to warm to him, but given his position and the events surrounding his life, it is easy to understand why he acts the way he does. He can be standoffish, grumpy, and snaps at people who would help him. At least to begin with.

One thing DiMartino has a talent for is character growth and development, and here it is on display. Though I would say it is not quite so strong as in his previous work, there is definitely a great sense of it here.

However, there has not really been enough space given to the characters to fully grow as yet. Other than Giacomo himself, few others are allowed to shine or really show themselves. As this is the first part of a larger series, I’m willing to give it a pass on this front for now. But will say that it might have been stronger if it had begun with fewer characters and gave them each more space to become real and relatable.

The Writing

The author’s strength is definitely in the dialogue, here. His history of writing scripts over prose really comes across, especially in the descriptive scenes which tend to be much more utilitarian than invocative. As a result, much of the prose can feel dull, and when the story demands as much action and excitement, this can be a great detriment.

However, I still found myself enjoying an awful lot of the writing. Helped along by the illustrations, which do serve to enhance the reading experience. The action is swift, pointed, and gripping, but can be a little repetitive. There are a lot of strange and esoteric concepts that are quite difficult to get your head around, which is a sticking point when the action relies on it.

Summing Up

This is an encouraging first step from DiMartino into the world of YA novels. While still nowhere near the heights of his previous work, I am more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and allow the series to play out. I have great hopes for this series and more than look forward to the upcoming installments.

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Joel Cornah
Joel Cornah is an author, journalist, and blogger. He is the author of a number of novels and novellas including; The Sea-Stone Sword, The Spire of Frozen Fire and The Silent Helm, with the upcoming novel The Sky Slayer, expected some time in 2016. He is an editor for The Science-Fiction and Fantasy Network, head of the Doctor Who department, and member of the Tolkien Society. He is a frequent blogger for the Pack of Aces blog, focussing on issues of Asexuality in media, specialising in sci-fi and fantasy.