I’ll admit that I picked this up from the library shelf because I knew the author was Michael Dante DiMartino, the co-creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender, one of the greatest animated shows of all time. Naturally I was curious to see what he would do in another storytelling format, and Rebel Genius (2016) certainly had a compelling blurb.
Young Giacomo Ghiberti lives in a world where artists — whether they’re painters, sculptors or musicians — have bird-like creatures who help channel their creative powers. Called Geniuses, they’re beautiful creatures, who provide inspiration and life-long companionship to their artists, but unfortunately they’re also outlawed. The city of Virenzia is ruled over by the self-styled Supreme Creator Nerezza, who has decreed that anyone caught with a Genius should be executed.
That’s how Giacomo lost his parents, leaving him an orphan in the slums of the city, stealing food and art supplies from the markets. Then one night, much to his shock, a Genius appears. It’s his Genius, and now he’s on the run not only from the Supreme Creator’s soldiers, but a sinister sorcerer called Ugalino and the many-armed, golem-like creature who obeys his every command.
In many ways Rebel Genius is highly reminiscent of Avatar — there’s a rich imaginary world based on a real historical setting (for Avatar it was medieval Asia; here it’s Renaissance Italy), a complex framework of “magic” that involves geometry, light and artistic endeavour, and a cross-country journey that involves plenty of character building along the way. There’s even a scene in which Giacomo accidentally burns one of his companions when he mishandles his power.
But this familiarity is off-set by the unique elements that DiMartino adds, and young readers in particular will love the way the Geniuses supplement the artistry of the characters. He mentions in the back of the book that he was inspired by how the term “genius” was originally a Latin word for a guiding spirit, and that their appearance is borrowed from the Hindu and Buddhist imagery of Garuda, a divine human-bird that wears a jewelled crown.
DiMartino has also added his own sketches throughout the work, which give us a good look at the characters, their Geniuses, and parts of the world around them.
It’s fascinating stuff, though there are also some clunky bits: not only does Giacomo master incredible abilities in an extremely short space of time (his mentors even point out how rare this is) but the story’s McGuffins aren’t particularly interesting, and some of the characters not fully drawn (a team of mercenaries ends up being little more than cannon-fodder).
Yet for the most part I really enjoyed Rebel Genius, and already have the sequel, Warrior Genius, on-hand.