Being special isn’t always a good thing.
The Institute is Stephen King’s sixty-first novel – an amazing feat in and of itself. It revisits ground the author has trodden before (Firestarter springs immediately to mind) and yet it manages to tread a new path, one that quickly draws you in and then proceeds to tell you a story you won’t be able to put down.
Twelve-year-old Luke Ellis is special. He’s an intelligent boy, so bright that he’s outgrown his school and is about to embark on college-level education – at two universities. At least that’s the plan until he’s stolen away from his parents and taken to the Institute, a privately funded facility hidden deep in a forest that exists to help kids like Luke – ‘special’ kids – develop their talents to the full. Because as well as being bright, Luke has another talent – he can ‘push’ things without touching them; just a little, and not all the time, but enough to attract the Institute’s attention. They’re collecting children who are telepathic or telekinetic and training them – telling them they’re working for the government and their talents will save their country. What they don’t tell them is that – to the world at large – they’ve disappeared, their families killed. Together with his new friends, telepaths Kalisha and Avery, Luke must get to the root of what’s going on – and find a way out, saving himself and those he cares about if he can.
The Institute is vintage King – a tale of childhood friendships, an unscrupulous organisation that seeks to use these children’s talents for their own ends, regardless of whether they destroy the kids in the process, and the innate strength the kids find in each other; how they work together to save themselves and indeed all the inmates of the Institute, and find out their own strengths and weaknesses in the process. It’s not a novel that could have been written twenty or thirty years ago. Although Firestarter and several other of King’s novels have dealt with similar subject matter (gifted children and government conspiracies), the world itself was a very different place then. This world of The Institute is a very modern one, set up to fight today’s terrors. The children are being weaponised, effectively, to fight against the dangers of a world we all recognise from the news. The characters are well drawn, as you’d expect, and you come to care very much about what happens to these children – as well as what happens to the help they receive from an unexpected quarter – former cop Tim Jamieson and his companions. The Institute might not be my Number One favourite King novel, but it ranks right up there with the best of them. Marie O’Regan