The Hypnotists and Memory Maze are the first two books in a new series by Gordon Korman. The hero of the books is 12-year-old New Yorker Jackson (Jax) Opus. Jax has always had unusual eyes that change color and an odd tendency to have things go his way. When Jax starts to experience hallucinations (seeing himself from outside), and finds certain people jumping to obey his every whim, it becomes clear to the reader that Jax is a natural hypnotist. Eventually, Jax comes to the attention of Dr. Elias Mako, founder of an institute at which Jax can learn to control and exploit his skill. However, when one is dealing with hypnotists, it's hard to know who to trust. Jax eventually finds himself in a difficult situation.
If you can let go of the "kid who thought he was ordinary, but turns out to have a special skill, and to actually be the most special of everyone with that skill" trope (which is everywhere these days), The Hypnotists is an enjoyable read. Jax has a realistic dynamic with his long-time best friend (who is color-blind, and thus can't be accidentally hypnotized by Jax). Jax has a keen sense of right and wrong, without being smarmy, and a realistic balance of freedom vs. parental supervision for a New York City 12-year-old.
I found that the plot in the first book (The Hypnotists) took a bit of time to get going. There's a fair amount of set-up, and I was rather frustrated with Jax's slow pace at figuring out what was going on. Of course, I had the title of the book as a clue. But the later part of book includes plenty of action and suspense. The stakes are high for Jax personally, and for the world at large.
I must admit that I enjoyed the details of revisionist history sprinkled throughout the book, as various obscure hypnotists are credited with having directed historical events. Like this:
"Jax was amazed to learn how often hypnotism had played a part in key world events. Sir Edmund Hillary would never have conquered Mount Everest if he hadn't been mesmerized to get over his fear of heights. Brahms was tone-deaf, and wouldn't have been able to write halfway-decent music if his wife hadn't been a gifted mind-bender. Lewis and Clark were both hypnotists, and had bent each other no less than twenty-seven times before they reached the Pacific. It was the only thing that kept them going." (Page 73, paperback edition)
This again is a trope that we've seen used in other series. (The half-bloods in Rick Riordan's series come to mind.) But Korman makes it fresh by selecting slightly quirky examples. The details of how the hypnotism works seem age-appropriate, and carry a refreshingly scientific bent (it's not just mysterious magic that just works - there are rules and skills to learn and practice).
The best endorsement I can give you of The Hypnotists is that immediately after finishing it, I picked up the next book, Memory Maze. I won't say much about Memory Maze, to avoid spoilers for the first book. I'll just say that since Jax already understands who and what he is at the start of the book, the action picks up more quickly than in The Hypnotists. There are a couple of interesting new characters, including a 97-year-old billionaire and nosy pre-teen girl who can read lips.
Memory Maze has some interesting things to say about what it might be like in practice to be a strong hypnotist. You'd never know whether people liked you for who you were, or because you were unconsciously influencing them. Jax can't even lose at chess, as it turns out, because his opponents try to please him by making poor moves. Then there are the ethical choices: when, if ever, is it ok to hypnotize other people? And how hard is it to tread the straight and narrow when you don't have to?
The plot in Memory Maze, as befitting the title, is twisty, with the reader unsure of exactly what is going on inside of Jax's head. I enjoyed the second book more than I did the first, and I look forward to finding out what will have to Jax in the next Hypnotists title. I think that these books will be a hit with middle grade and middle school readers.
Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic)
Publication Date: July 30, 2013 and July 29, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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