Reminder: All notes taken from an ARC of book.
I really liked the first book. As someone who is an advocate for diversity in children's fiction, it was awesome, even amazing (though slightly disheartening that I was SO excited by it being such a rare example), for a book to feature a cast that was so
diverse. I love Jackson as a suave, if slightly awkward with his feelings, young black boy, who has a particular knack for masterminding, but an ultimately good heart. His friends Charlie and Gaby de la Cruz who are his best friends and the latter his love interest - undeniably Hispanic. With so many books that tip toe around mentions of race (particularly in books set within this age group) the diversity is impossible to ignore, and for the most part avoid stereotypes. Megan, the blonde cheerleader is a tech geek. For a rare occasion, an actiony, cool, slick book about heists stars an African American boy as its George Clooney - this is all important. This is why, even if I liked it enough already, I ended up wanting to shout its praises from my rooftop.
But then you get to the Asians.
I tried to ignore it in the first book. As a KOREAN American, no less, I was kind of disappointed that Victor Cho was not only a member of the chess team, but the only part of the Greene Gang that turns on them. It was a minor plot point, so though I did feel somewhat disheartened, it didn't color the rest of the book.
It did, however, color this book, because Victor is THE villain - after Jackson continually dismisses him as a possibility which results in this discovery to be not so much of a twist as a "well then why mention it all until now". And ultimately he follows all the stereotypes. Sneaky, double-crossing, almost impossibly a total jerk, focused on getting that A even when he has a passable B. I mean he blackmails Jackson for a TEST GRADE ARE YOU KIDDING ME. It would be one thing for him to appear this way if Victor was purely portrayed through Jackson's perspective. But he's not. We're in Victor's head every now and then in the book, and he is an unremitting little jerk. He is almost unbelievably villainous. I mean my goodness, why not just slap the Fu Manchu mustache on him and type "and then Victor let out a maniacal laugh". AND he's FILTHY RICH? This is definitely a universe where money means little to nothing, but really?
I don't know why this happened. For a series that I felt so good about, this supremely disappointed me. Ultimately, I think this book is better for diversity than it is worse, but what would I have felt, reading this as a child? My criticism of diversity in media today was not at all developed so what would I have taken out of this? The usual, it seems. And that's so upsetting.
In a lot of ways, everything I have to recommend about this book is the same as the first one. The plotting is quick and the characters are all loveable. Jackson's relationship with Gaby is hilariously adorable and though his fight with Charlie ended, I think, less than satisfactorily, it at least established their long standing friendship and loyalty. I'm glad that Megan got more of a plot, though in turn, Hashemi ended up somewhat lacking. I am also expecting a book that more intricately deals with everyone's fascination and hero-worship of Jackson.
I liked this book a lot. I am also incredibly disappointed by this book. Mr. Johnson, if you ever chance upon this review, I would appreciate it if you considered what went into writing a character like Victor Cho. Also the best villains are villains that are rounded, which Victor and Keith and even the principal are not.