The Prisoner of Cell 25 by Richard Paul Evans is the first in a series starring Michael Vey, a fourteen-year-old whose mysterious electrical powers capture the interest of a shadowy scientific organization with a dark history. Although I am frequently wary of sci-fi or fantasy novels that seek to create some logical yet mystical explanation for specific disabilities, I have to admit that I was pretty intrigued to see a protagonist whose ability to manipulate electricity might be tied to his Tourette’s Syndrome.
Considering there are only seventeen teenagers in this universe with electrical abilities, none of whom appear to possess any disabilities except for Michael, it doesn’t likely that his TS is the cause of his powers. And even though Michael’s skills are impressive, he isn’t the main target of the scientists who are seeking to capture and control the electrical teenagers.
These are small but important distinctions. In my experience, fantasy or sci-fi stories that try and develop story-specific reasons for a character’s disability tend to fall into one of two unpleasant camps. Camp #1 reduces the effects of the disability so much that it hardly seems to impact the character’s life, effectively erasing the disability so that the character fits in with everyone else. Camp #2 affords the disabled person some kind of valuable skill as a result of their disability. This particular tactic is especially irritating to me, because it more or less tricks readers into mentally erasing the character’s disability themselves. You finish the book believing that the characters can either be effectively non-disabled, or in possession of some magical talent that balances out the disability. There is no middle ground.
What makes Michael unique isn’t his disability, but the realization that his powers are changing. He discovers that absorbing the electricity directed at him—whether by technology or by other characters with powers—enhances the voltage he’s capable of directing at others.
Because TS is itself a constantly changing condition that appears differently in every individual who has it, I think it would be really interesting if the same neurological instability that causes tics and creates variations of tics was responsible for the variations in Michael’s powers. Building a link between Michael’s condition and his abilities could be disastrously stereotypical in the hands of another author, but I was so pleasantly surprised by the deftness with which Evans worked TS into Michael’s story that I’m convinced he could pull it off.
For example, Michael’s tics are pretty small scale as far as both motor and verbal tics go. They’re stressful or embarrassing to him because he’s the one dealing with them, but the people he’s close to don’t really pay them much attention. Michael’s mom uses his tics as a barometer for his stress level—which makes perfect sense, given the way that tics tend to worsen when you’re under pressure—but his best friend Ostin is far more interested in Michael’s electric shock skills than he is in Michael’s TS.
I found Ostin to be an incredibly refreshing character on so many levels, but a huge part of the reason I appreciated him so much—aside from his badass intellect and on-point insults—was because he kept Michael from fulfilling the outcast disabled person stereotype. Michael’s Tourette’s provides bullies with plenty of ammunition, but that doesn’t mean he has no friends, is unloved, or unaccepted.
When Michael befriends Taylor Ridley, a popular cheerleader who basically grants him entrance to the in-crowd, none of the popular kids he meets are jerks to him because he has TS, either. They notice his tics and ask about them, and then they move on. One of the popular girls even contributes a story about how her cousin has Tourette’s, and how he’s a just normal—even popular—kid with normal hobbies.
I also loved the way Richard Paul Evans, who has TS himself, uses conversation as a way of dismantling stereotypes or misinformation. Like most people whose only experience with Tourette’s has been through TV or movies, Taylor associates TS with loud, unrestrained cursing. She isn’t rude in her assumptions—she’s just trying to tie the disability Michael mentions to the only information she has. When Michael explains to her that Tourette’s can affect more than just his vocal cords and that sometimes his tics are painful, she immediately wonders aloud if it’s okay for her to ask him more questions.
I personally don’t mind talking about my experiences with TS with people who are willing to listen, but there are plenty of people who probably don’t feel that way. And since putting your tics in the spotlight, so to speak, can sometimes increase their severity, I thought it was really important that Taylor was shown asking Michael’s permission before their conversation progressed.
Whether a real on-page connection is ever confirmed between Michael’s tics and his powers, I am confident that the rest of this series will contain just as accurate and respectful a portrayal of Tourette’s Syndrome as The Prisoner of Cell 25 does.