Nico Rafael is 14-years-old and attends his stepfather’s boarding school, Fox Academy. Fergus Fox is giving an assembly when Nico is incensed after seeing his best friend (and crush) Ketty cozy up to another guy. It isn’t long before he makes a connection between his raging emotions and the strange wind activity that suddenly wreaks havoc in the assembly room.
Soon after, Fergus takes his stepson aside and makes his accusatory bombshell: he knows it was Nico behind the whole activity, Nico and his ability. Confused and irritated at overprotecting Fregus who warns him of the evil nature of those abilities and cautions never to use them, Nico finds solace in the alluring promises of Jack, a stranger known only through a mysterious text message that knows all about who Nico really is.
Book one of The Medusa Project, The Set-Up, is “Heroes” (U.S. television show and X-men lite) meets Harry Potter. Nico and four other teenagers were injected before birth with the Medusa gene. Unknown to them, Medusa is a psychic gene linked to extrasensory abilities and triggered by puberty. Now that they’re growing up, they begin to experience strange phenomena as their latent abilities develop.
The Set-Up is all action and suspense–everything the jacket copy promises it would be: a thrilling teen suspense-filled drama with lots of running. Unfortunately, the character development is at a minimal, present, but shallow and predictable.
Like the plot, the characters seem to promise a lot. Nico lives with a stepfather, his parents having both died or, for the purposes of the narrative, are permanently removed from their responsibility. He doesn’t get along well with his stepfather anymore (in fact, he has moved out of his apartment and into quarters at the Academy) and their disagreements only increase with the friction caused by Fergus’ attempts to dissuade Nico from learning (or using) more of his ability. Eager to go behind Fergus’ back to get what he wants, I thought this could only lead to disaster, as all things tend to do when children do what their parents or guardians don’t want them to.
And it does. Nico is persuaded by Jack of the power inherent in his ability. He offers Nico the chance for money, girls, and power and assumes he’s got it in the bag. With the seemingly altruistic motivations of wanting to “help” Nico navigate this new change in his life, Jack isn’t exactly as suave as he is pushy, leading to the inevitable questioning of his morals and motivations. Nico is selfish himself, thinking to impress Ketty with large gestures fueled by a new, nefarious income. He assumes, after all, that her new boyfriend is offering her the same thing (cell phone, jewelry) despite how unsuited this is to the character portrait McKenzie has written of Ketty. But that doesn’t stop Nico and isn’t long before his selfishness messily turns into semi-tepid growth at the end of the novel inspiring Ketty’s own unbelievable behavior (she would dump her beau relatively instantly for the chance to date Nico).
If I sound too critical, it’s only because I really wanted to see more of the relationship between Ketty and Nico that would validate such reactions from both of them. This criticism is one that runs throughout the novel: it was too short and because of that, felt too rushed. The only relationship I found believable was that between Nico and Fergus. I actually thought Fergus was one of the more interesting characters–along with Geri–who we are unable to correctly predict along the sliding scale of friend vs foe. That could be personal taste. I enjoy characters who have a little more dimension; it may be that I am dismissing Nico and the other three teens as one-dimensional teenagers because they are at a point in their life where they are quite obviously and painfully experience raging emotions and hormones (Dylan was ridiculous, even given her background information). While I think the teens have certain elements of dimension, it wasn’t enough for any one of them to outshine Fergus. Yes, he’s an adult and has had many more years to develop a mysterious past, but that’s fascinating in comparison to Nico who remains relatively stable throughout the book. The teenagers are limited by their teenager-ness, swayed by their emotions and desire to hold one over on the “bad guy” parent, immature in their actions, however heroic. On the other hand, it’s quite easy to see how Fergus comes to respect his stepson by the end of the novel whereas Nico never really seems to change his opinion of Fergus.
Although, if I was reading this as a young teen, I admit, I would probably identify more with Nico, Dylan, Ed, or Ketty than I would with the apparently stuffy, overbearing parent figure, the adult who only gets in the way of all the fun and adventure. In light of that, I enjoyed the book for what it was: an action mystery science fiction suspense read. I did like the writing a lot. Sophie McKenzie is wonderful in writing poor Nico’s complete and utter lovesickness of Ketty. This is probably why I began expecting a more expansive read. I don’t think I’m the intended audience, but for those who are, this book is great fun with a lot of twists and turns, a little bit of romance, and super-human abilities to make it all seem a little otherworldly and magical. Plus, the big reveal at the end was completely unexpected and awesome and has me excited for the next book!
Release Date: June 9, 2009
Reviewed Format: UK trade paperback provided by Simon & Schuster UK