The Institute is the second YA novel I’ve read and reviewed and, true to the best elements of the genre, enjoyed. YA is an nebulous sub-genre of lots of different genres. From what I’m seeing the writing is on the same level as what is commonly referred to as “adult fiction”, the plots are just as well developed, and the characters are as complicated as the works that are targeted at adults (whatever adult actually means). The only real difference between YA fiction and everything else seems to be the ages of the characters.
Enter Kayla Howarth and The Institute, a fast-paced and contemplative work about the value and cost of being different in a world that really doesn’t appreciate differences. Imagine, if you will, a world where people with special powers are encouraged to report to the titualar Institute to be treated and cured. True to government form, the Institute is positioned as a place where people with these powers – Defectives as they’re called in the book – can be treated. Of course, everyone knows the Institute isn’t there to help anyone, it’s little more than a prison where the treatment largely consists of locking Defectives away.
“Allira Daniels will do anything to keep her family safe from the Institute. They claim to protect the Defectives, but really the Defectives are trapped and segregated.
Allira’s brother Shilah is not dangerous like everyone assumes all Defectives are. He just sees things before they happen, and Allira knows that if anyone finds out, they will turn on the entire Daniels family. So they live by one simple rule: be invisible. They try to blend in at school, try not to draw unnecessary attention to themselves. But when Allira witnesses a car accident that critically injures two of her classmates, her family’s rule and her dad’s warnings are tossed aside.
Allira is quick to discover that saving Drew’s life could just be the best and worst thing she’s ever done.”
The concept of the Defectives is what sets off the story. In Howarth’s dystopian world individuals with some kind of special powers pop up from time to time, much to the chagrin of a government that sees them as dangerous. A Defective’s powers may be something simple, like the ability to see a short time into the future or to read someone else’s mind. They may also be quite a bit more; the novel references a Defective that basically nuked a city. With my luck I’d wind up being able to talk to corn but still get locked up for it. Allira has a most interesting power of her own.
There are plenty of twists and turns in The Institute; the story is engaging and keeps you pondering the large questions about exactly what you would do if you were dropped into a situation where you had to work with the people you hated or suffer the dire consequences. If you were abducted by government forces, dropped in a jail, tortured, and told your family would suffer if you failed to work with your abductors, what would you do? Would you grudgingly work with the people who imprisoned and tortured you or would you stick to your guns and accept punishment? To add a nice little twist to the tale, if you grudgingly work with the people who imprisoned you, your job will be to hunt down and imprison other people like you.
And that, right there, is the important part of the story. It’s about what it means to be different and how people come to grips that. It’s also a story about how we rationalize our decisions even when we’re not 100% certain the path we’ve chosen is a good one.
Aside from being a good story, it’s a well-written tale with a protagonist you can’t help but root for even as she questions whether or not what she’s doing is the right thing. Moral abiguity and relativistic morality are always difficult to pull off well but Howarth nails it. Highly recommended, The Institute is not only a cracking good read, it’s one of those immersive books where you find yourself wondering what you would do if you were in that same situation.
The Institute left me wanting to know more. Fortunately, there’s already a sequel out.