Book Review: The Institute

I’ve been in a bit of a late June and all of July slump on reading. The last book I read, and the last of my Goodreads reads from this year, was Stephen King’s 2019 book The Institute in mid-June. This one also wasn’t reviewed after the fact on Goodreads, so here’s my review now.

If you haven’t read this book, I would read the first paragraph that follows and then nothing else. You’ve been warned!

Think It, but slightly less monstrous. Think Stranger Things, but without the ’80s vibes. Think X-Men, but with two specific powers rather than diverse powers (telekinesis and telepathy). Think Ken Kessey’s 1962 novel (or the great Jack Nicholson film based on it) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and with a Nurse Ratched-like character, no less, but with kids instead of adults, more young adult than adult.

And now you basically have the amalgamate of The Institute. There’s also two wildly disparate elements in this book that come together at the end: Tim Jamieson, a former cop, takes a job in a small town in South Carolina working for the local sheriff. All by coincidence. And then The Institute aspect, where Luke Ellis, the primary character, a boy genius, is kidnapped by mercenaries working for The Institute, who take him to that place where other kids are there to teach him the ropes.

Never the twain shall meet until way deep into the book. That’s the most perplexing part of this book that was a bit of an uncharacteristic miss from King. The book introduces us to this interesting Jamieson character early on, and then we hear nothing from him for quite literally hundreds of pages until the plot deems it convenient that he come back into the story (and somehow connect to the events ongoing at The Institute and with Ellis).

The actual scenes at The Institute aren’t particularly exciting, but the curiosity of what The Institute is doing propels the story forward enough. The real excitement comes when Ellis, who with the help of a cleaner (who you can’t decide where her loyalty lies initially) named Maureen, escapes from The Institute and joins up with Ellis.

It turns out, that The Institute’s stated mission is, through the help of precogs (those with the purported ability to see into the future), stopping bad actors before they can threaten the safety of the world. And a number of events have been stopped before they could happen. In other words, The Institute argues that while it’s means may be unethical and gross, its ends (world peace) justify them.

And that’s sort of just … left hanging. The actual power structure behind The Institute isn’t dismantled, just one “franchise,” if you will, and their thesis (we’re saving the world) isn’t vehemently challenged. That didn’t sit well with me. These were the villains of the story, after all! And the idea that our protagonists could, if the argument of The Institute is correct, be the “real villains” because they stopped The Institute, at least momentarily, is rather upsetting an ending.

Also, since it’s a Stephen King book, it’s worth remarking that it wasn’t particularly frightening or scary. Some of the torture made my skin crawl in a torture-sounds-awful way, but not in a horrifying, atmospheric I-can’t-sleep-way.

It’s not Stephen King’s best work. In fact, off the top of my head, I would rate it last among all of his books I’ve read. But it’s Stephen King, so even the least of his is still better than most, and still an enjoyable way to spend a week of reading.

There’s some good ideas here, but by fixing the bridging of the two stories (which was quite a stretch as is!), and having a better ending (King is notorious for struggling with endings), I think this would have been a more top notch King effort.

On Goodreads, I gave it four of five stars. I’m an incredibly charitable rater, so most books I rate are probably going to be five stars. I would say four means it was good and enjoyable enough, just not great. Anything below four means I probably disliked the book more than I liked it.

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