Go back and read the title again.
Now that’s a high concept.
I periodically browse through the Kindle store for new novels to read and review. On one such trip, I came across Sechin Tower’s Mad Science Institute. Long-time readers know the dangers of judging a book by its cover. But with that title on the cover, I thought, surely it would be worth an impulse buy. Who wouldn’t want to read about a Hogwarts for budding Frankensteins and Moreaus? And after reading the prologue, my opinion was confirmed – this was a book I wouldn’t be returning. Then I set it aside and didn’t pick it up for a little while. It wasn’t until recently that I finally had the chance to resume it.
As it turns out, it’s not quite the book I thought it would be. Nor is it quite the book I think it could have been. So I will confess to being a bit disappointed. Only a bit, though, and don’t let that put you off buying it. My disappointment is due to my taking the core concept and running with how I would have written it rather than any intrinsic demerits in the book. For anyone who enjoys weird tales of mad science, this good effort should engage you. There’s more than enough here to justify the cover price.
Sixteen-year-old Sophia Lazarchek (just call her Soap) doesn’t “mean to keep blowing things up.” It just happens. She has a brilliant mind and an aptitude for machinery, though she’s not so good with people. But even with her inventions, something always goes a little wrong. For example, we meet her as her latest creation, a mobile energy-transmitting robot whimsically named Rusty, is destroying a science fair and Soap’s best chance at a college scholarship. Despite her brilliance, Soap is wracked with self-doubt, and with guilt about the psychological and financial pain her constant disasters are causing her father. So it seems like the answer to all her prayers when a letter arrives offering her admission (and a full scholarship) to the Mechanical Science Institute in Bugswallow, Minnesota, starting that fall. At last, a place where she won’t stand out – and (I thought to myself) a place with enough liability insurance to give her accidentally destructive tendencies some cover.
Soap doesn’t know it, but the admission was partly due to the good words of her older cousin Dean. A firefighter by trade, he has an on-again, off-again relationship with Dr. Denise McKenzie, the dean of MSI, and he alerted her about his unusual cousin with an aptitude both for machines and destruction. But at the moment, Dean and McKenzie are definitely off-again. So he is pleasantly surprised when she shows up at his work out of nowhere…and flabbergasted when she requests that he take over temporarily as dean! That assignment shortly becomes permanent when McKenzie meets with an unfortunate “accident” that stops her pacemaker. A grief-stricken Dean, now Dean Dean, heads for Minnesota to watch over his cousin and fulfill his departed fiancée’s last wishes.
The Mechanical Science Institute, their destination, is a very unusual school indeed. Housed in Topsy Hall on the campus of Langdon University, it nevertheless exists apart from the college proper, with its own separate building and its own separate financial accounts (to the great displeasure of the school’s president). Meant to house a population of three professors and over thirty students, MSI currently plays host to just two students, plus the incoming Soap and Dean. The resources it has are nothing short of remarkable given its size, though. As it turns out, MSI was originally a secret laboratory for one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known, Nikola Tesla (yes, he of the Tesla coil). Many of the things he did there were never revealed to the outside world. And the students and staff have had decades to expand on and improve his work.
Unfortunately for both Soap and Dean, times aren’t peaceful at Topsy. Someone wants access to a very peculiar metal on which the Institute has a near-monopoly. That someone is not above hiring a gang of biker thugs to commit burglaries that are the first steps in an extraordinarily audacious plan for world domination. That someone also doesn’t much care if a few people become collateral damage along the way. Together, Soap and Dean will have to stop an evil mad scientist and save the world. All in a day’s work for a genius girl, her common-sense cousin, and her faithful robot companion. Right? All of us had better hope so…
Mad Science Institute is structured in an unusual way, alternating chapters between Soap’s story (told in the first-person) and Dean’s story (told in a third-person limited point of view). This structure works very well, allowing for natural in-story breaks to sustain tension while the narrative continues to move forward. Without a doubt, though, the best parts of the novel belong to Soap. Dean is crucial to the goings-on, of course, and his plights are also interesting. But Tower really nails the perspective of his young heroine, who is consistently engaging in both her best and worst moments. Soap is believable both as a mechanical genius and as a complete basket-case when it comes to people. She has no idea how to carry on a normal conversation – at one point, she attacks the problem from her natural angle by attempting to develop a matrix to successfully guide her through human interaction. (Spoiler alert: it needs work.) And as her actions make clear, she really doesn’t have a good handle on consequences either, at least not outside of the natural laws that govern her specialty areas. But she has a good heart, and she really can handle anything mechanical given tools and time. By the end of the story, she might need to do just that.
Tower knows how to work a plot as well. People and events from the very first part of the story play a critical role in the climax. He sets up a number of opportunities for narrative payoffs, and I don’t think he misses any of them – certainly none of the major ones. And the characters that move through the story are great as well. In a novel about mad scientists, the last thing you need are bland personalities. You have my personal guarantee that none are on display here. They’ll wear loud clothes, they’ll have eccentric attitudes, and they’ll possess awe-inspiring technology, but they won’t bore you. And any first-time author looking to learn how to handle chapter breaks could use this book as an example of a fast-paced narrative broken right. In the later pages, I found myself unable to put down the Kindle. “Just two more chapters,” I would say. “Just until I see what happens to Soap next.” Two chapters became four, which became six, which deprived me of my sleep. Curse you, Sechin Tower!
If there was a place where the novel faltered for me, unfortunately, it was the presentation of the Mechanical Science Institute itself. Please be aware that this first complaint I am about to make is not lodged against Tower but against my own expectations, which I couldn’t get rid of. I wanted to see Soap welcomed to a thriving dysfunctional community. In the back of my mind, I was hoping that MSI would turn out to be a college-campus version of Sky High with nothing but technopaths. Instead, as I indicated earlier, the school is very sparsely populated…at least in this novel. People who want to see the same thing need to recalibrate their expectations, and I mention this to help them do so. But it would be unfair of me to consider that a mark against the novel.
More serious problems do exist, though, and do hurt the story. We simply have too much technology thrown at us too quickly in the middle section of the book, to the point where MSI starts to seem like a place where anything is possible – not in the good sense of there being a limitless technological horizon, but in the bad sense of “Do they have an app for everything?” A few of the characters are revealed to have different allegiances than they first appeared to, which is fine…with the exception of one character in particular, whom I was prepared to believe was both good and evil by the climax. The villain also uses Soap to spring a key part of the master plan far too early, before she and we have really gotten to experience MSI; that feels like a mistake, as a place we don’t even know very well is suddenly under a sustained assault about which we’re supposed to care. The attempt ends in failure, and Soap’s refusal to lend a hand is repaid with some stunningly wicked consequences (a definite point for Tower there). But I question whether even Soap would have been so naïve as to contribute as much as she did without asking some hard questions, or whether the villain wouldn’t feel it necessary to build up some trust with Soap first. This is generally the complaint I have about the Kindle novels I’ve read; they lack something in the construction of their middles. Had Mad Science Institute been about half again as long as it was and taken place over a couple months instead of a couple weeks, it would have been improved, I think.
On the plus side, though, the story is launched well, written well, and finds its way to a satisfying climax. So complaints about the middle may be somewhat overstated on my part. As for our characters, they reach a very different place in their personal journey by book’s end. Our shy and reserved heroine comes to command the affections of not one but two boys, all while getting to wreak havoc on purpose this time. Our somewhat out-of-his-depth firefighter learns that MSI is the perfect place for him after all. And I defy you not to fall in love with Rusty, or want a version of him for yourself. So ultimately, I’m giving Mad Science Institute my seal of approval. And if Sechin Tower wants that seal emblazoned on the back of a lab coat, he’s welcome to it.
If he pays for postage. Unlike the people at Topsy, I’m not made of money.