The hero of this teen novel, Cadel Piggott, is a prodigy. The Sydney boy, an only child who is being raised by two oddly busy and emotionally uninvolved parents, has an unusual gift for understanding complicated systems.

He's a computer whiz even before he's hit school and manages to wreak havoc at the tender age of 7 — a talent which lands him at the mercy of a child psychologist, the mysterious Dr Thaddeus Roth.

That's when the trouble really starts. It's no accident that Cadel has landed in the shrink's office. Under Roth's guidance, his true purpose unfolds.

At nearly 500 densely printed pages, Evil Genius is for the advanced reader. Although not illustrated, it has a noirish comic-book feel and could be just the antidote to the Harry Potter frenzy about to break out in the middle of the year with the publication of J.K. Rowling's sixth book.

Like the boy wizard, Cadel is a child with prodigious talents and special destiny. But he's the anti-Potter, a boy being groomed by forces of darkness to rule the world, starting with learning to control the fates of his schoolmates.

By the time he reaches his teens, Cadel is packed off to get a university education befitting his special talents. But the Axis Institute is a place which teaches only evil — requisite subjects for Cadel's degree in world domination are embezzlement, fraud, disguise and computer hacking. The institute is a thoroughly modern place, but in spirit it's exactly the kind of establishment in which Rowling's Lord Voldemort would feel quite at home.

But a small part of Cadel's world is outside the range of his controllers. Through this small chink, he comes to understand the limits of his talents. Yes, he has a genius for understanding systems — except the one in which he himself is ensnared.

There's moral in here but Evil Genius doesn't lay it on thick. It stands out from the pack of young adult novels and there's a real drama and tension as Cadel twists and turns like an animal in a trap. Is he smart enough to escape a nightmare world he played a part in making?
* Allen & Unwin, $19.95