Variant, by Robison Wells

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Author’s website
Publication date – October 4, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Benson Fisher thought a scholarship to Maxfield Academy would be the ticket out of his dead-end life.

He was wrong.

Now he’s trapped in a school that’s surrounded by a razor-wire fence. A school where video cameras monitor his every move. Where there are no adults. Where the kids have split into groups in order to survive.

Where breaking the rules equals death.

But when Benson stumbles upon the school’s real secret, he realizes that playing by the rules could spell a fate worse than death, and that escape—his only real hope for survival—may be impossible.

Thoughts: A good number of YA novels take place in boarding schools, and Variant is another that can be added to that growing pile. But what makes this book stand out from others is that instead of having a misunderstood teenage girl as the protagonist, things get switched up and the main character is actually male. This puts this boarding school tale in a minority, since 75% of the other books I’ve read involving boarding schools of some kind have had their main characters be female.

I have to say, it was a nice change of pace. Not because I prefer reading stories about males, but because of the shift in perspective and priorities that came with a different gender.

Benson is a loner, a teenager’s who has been shuffled from foster home to foster home, and who views Maxfield Academy as his chance to break the cycle when he’s offered a scholarship there. Once there, he discovers that things aren’t quite what they seemed to be. There are no teachers; students run the classes and the administration. Students have broken into gangs or factions, each with their own rivalries and credos. The school’s most popular sport consists of a paintball war. Everyone’s made to wear tracking devices, there and cameras and microphones everywhere, and breaking one of the major school rules is punishable by detention, which is a nice little euphemism for death.

Trying to escape is one thing that can earn you a detention. Talking about or planning to escape is punishable by the same.

To me, Variant read like James Dashner’s The Maze Runner inside a boarding school. It’s an obvious experiment, though the details of the experiment can only be speculated upon for the majority of the book. Most don’t understand what’s going on and are just trying to make the best of it, until somebody comes and messes up the system with their refusal to just accept that the old ways are the best ways.

The tension of the situation ramps up a notch when it’s revealed that nobody can trust anybody about anything. Not even whether or not they’re human.

Wells has a talent for character development, and clearly has the ability to take the basics of an idea that’s been done dozens of times before and running in a new and interesting direction with it. The characters in Variant were well-developed and had their own foibles and curiosities, and it was fun to see them. In particular, I enjoyed how Wells had Benson comment multiple times on how the whole situation at Maxfield Academy was illegal. That’s another point in his favour by comparison; I’ve read far too many stories about weird happenings at boarding schools where people notice that things are odd, perhaps even dangerous, but don’t once mention trying to bring the police or the media into it. Wells’s characters acted like real people, and it made for a pleasant experience to read.

Kudos to Wells for including romance in the story but not having it be anything but a side-story. Benson’s attraction to Jane was sweet, fairly innocent, and very realistic, and most importantly, didn’t dominate every moments of either character’s life. I find that romance works best when it’s a spice and not the whole of the meal, and I think that it was balanced quite well here.

If there was one thing I disliked about this is was the abrupt cliffhanger ending. A little too abrupt. Yes, it certainly made me curious and made me want to read the eventual sequel, but cutting things off in the middle of the action, at an event which is utterly baffling, left me feeling more than a touch disappointed. It felt more like a cliffhanger from a TV show than a book, and those don’t always translate well from screen to page.

But overall, Variant was a well-plotted and well-executed YA novel, full of curious mysteries, tense action, and a desire to keep turning the pages. Highly recommended, especially to YA fans who enjoy a good boarding school tale but fancy a bit of a change from what’s currently on the shelves. I sincerely doubt you’ll be disappointed by what Wells has to offer.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

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