45 pages 1 hour read

Gordon Korman


Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2015

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Summary and Study Guide


Masterminds (2015) is the first title in a science fiction trilogy of the same name by Canadian American children’s author Gordon Korman. The story is set primarily in the fictional town of Serenity, New Mexico, which is approximately 70 miles from Taos. Although most of the action takes place in New Mexico, the concluding chapter is set in Colorado City and Pueblo, Colorado. The season is presumably early fall; although no particular month is mentioned, the temperature in town is noted as hot during the time the story unfolds. Events take place over a month or more, but the exact span of time isn’t mentioned. The story uses a limited first-person point of view and is told from the perspective of five main characters, all of whom are young teens. Each character gets chapters devoted to their version of events, and this alternating narrative technique remains consistent throughout the novel.

As the story opens, a boy named Eli Frieden talks about life in his peaceful community of Serenity. The town has no crime or poverty, and everyone accepts “the three Essential Qualities of Serenity citizens—honesty, harmony, and contentment” (9). One day, Eli’s friend Randy convinces him to venture past the town line on their bicycles, but Eli falls ill when he reaches the perimeter. He ends up in the hospital, and Randy is forced to leave town under mysterious circumstances. A secret message from his friend convinces Eli that something is deeply wrong with Serenity. As Eli and four classmates try to penetrate the mystery of their town, the novel explores the themes of Nature Versus Nurture, Clone Identities, and Personal Autonomy.

Korman began writing as a teenager and, in a career that spans four decades, has penned more than 90 middle-grade and teen novels. His works have sold 35 million copies worldwide, and some of his titles have reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Korman has received multiple reader’s choice and best book awards from various organizations during his long career.

Some of Korman’s works have been made into television shows, and the Masterminds trilogy has been optioned for movies or TV but isn’t yet in production. The other two titles in the series are Masterminds: Criminal Destiny (2016) and Masterminds: Payback (2017). The trilogy is intended for readers aged 10-12 in third through seventh grade. Masterminds falls under the categories of Children’s Fantasy & Supernatural Mystery Books and Children’s Mystery & Detective Adventure.

This study guide and all its page citations are based on the Kindle edition of the novel.

Plot Summary

The first chapter is told from the perspective of middle school student Eli Frieden. Subsequent chapters introduce four other main characters, who are Eli’s classmates: Amber Laska, Malik Bruder, Hector Amani, and Tori Pritel. Each one offers a different perspective of the town where they live. Serenity, New Mexico, is an unusual community because it has no crime or poverty, and none of the teens has ever traveled anywhere else. Eli and Amber don’t question this state of affairs. However, Malik and Hector would both like to move away when they’re old enough.

After Eli’s friend Randy convinces him to cross the town line on a bike ride, Eli gets deathly ill and is flown to the hospital. Afterward, Randy is sent out of town to live with his grandparents. Eli finds his friend’s abrupt departure slightly suspicious, and when he probes into what happened, he finds a secret note in which Randy cautions him that something is very wrong in Serenity. Some of the kids in town are special, but Randy isn’t one of them. He was sent away to attend a private school in Colorado.

Eli immediately discusses his concerns with Tori, Malik, and Hector, each of whom has noticed something strange about Serenity. Amber remains oblivious to the problem and is convinced that her town is the best place to live in all the world. Her other classmates conclude that the town’s Plastics Works factory holds the key to the mystery. After breaking into the facility, they discover a hidden research lab and discover that they’re all genetic clones of criminal masterminds. Eli’s supposed father, Felix Hammerstrom, is the director of an experiment to determine whether nature or nurture is responsible for criminal behavior. All the teens have been observed for lawless tendencies since the day they were born. Their parents are simply researchers who were assigned to report on their behavior. The clones eventually bring Amber into the group and escape by disabling the perimeter device that keeps them imprisoned in Serenity. They travel to Randy’s school in Colorado, hoping to find some way of exposing Hammerstrom’s illegal experiment. The novel ends as the five clones arrive on Randy’s doorstep.