"This life we think we’re living isn’t real. It’s just a shadow play, and I for one will be glad when the lights go out on it. In the dark, all the shadows disappear."
There are very few things that excite me as much as a new Stephen King release. And I was very, very excited for The Institute. The premise sounds like old school King - Luke Ellis, a young boy with dormant, but extraordinary abilities is ripped from his family and taken to a place called The Institute, where a sinister organization plans on extracting Luke's abilities, and the abilities of kids like him, for their own nefarious purpose.
It sounded like Firestarter meets IT, and I began to read The Institute as soon as I received it in the mail. After about 5 chapters in, I set it aside and found myself leaving it on my nightstand for almost three months, picking it up only occasionally to read another chapter or two. But then after Christmas, I finally decided to just sit my butt down and finish the darn book. I realized I found the beginning a bit slow and my interest had waned which is why it took me so long to really push myself to finish it. Even when I buckled down to read it, I enjoyed the characters quite a bit, but the pacing still felt lagging - the day to day operations in The Institute held some interest, but at the same time, I was ready for more. I needed action, I wanted answers.
At long last, King finally pushes the plot forward, and this is when the book became "unputdownable" to me. I soared through the rest of the book over the course of a day and felt that familiar exhilaration that comes with finishing a book by the master of horror.
*Please note: Spoilers ahead. Probably.
Luke Ellis is a protagonist you definitely rooted for. He's twelve, but he's a genius, and when he decides to escape The Institute, the ultimate chess game begins. King surrounds Luke with a handful of unforgettable characters, most notably Avery Dixon, a ten-year-old telepath, and Maureen, one of The Institute's housekeepers who decides to help Luke as a means of atonement for her own misdeeds.
Along with Avery, Luke befriends Kalisha, Nicky, George and Helen, all kids with similar abilities. There were times when the kids were speaking that I wondered how such young children could speak so maturely, and at one point Luke says "Jeepers!" and I really don't know any kids that age who say that word, but... those are minor nitpicks on my end.
As the head of The Institute, Mrs. Sigsby is a cold and brittle antagonist. Nothing matters to her but the organization's mission - which apparently, is saving the world. The children are mistreated and abused by the Institute's staff, all of whom are ex-military and feel justified in their behavior, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying their eventual comeuppance. Luke's confrontation and showdown with Sigsby and the equally horrible head of security, Trevor Stackhouse, is an absolute page-turner, as is the takedown of The Institute - but have our heroes done the right thing? Or have they simply sped up the destruction of mankind. The question King raises about sacrificing for the greater good is an interesting one and will no doubt make you think for a while after you've finished the book.
As with any King book, prepare yourself for plenty of suspense and thrills, but also plenty of loss. There are a few parts that made me sort of squeal out loud - the mention of The Ohio State Marching Band (The Best Damn Band in the Land!) and also Jersusalem's Lot, effectively placing The Institute in the same universe" as Salem's Lot. I may have found parts of the book slow and mildly frustrating in terms of pacing, but the second half of this book more than made up for it. I hope we get to see Luke Ellis again someday, maybe as an adult? Perhaps that's wishful thinking, but with King, you never know.