Seventeen-year-old Benson Fisher has had a rough life. Foster care. Problems in school. No real friends. When he is accepted into Maxfield Academy, it seems like a dream come true and the opportunity he needs to build a normal life and have a better future.
Too bad the mysterious people who run Maxfield have other plans…
Variant, the first young adult novel by author Robison Wells, doesn’t waste any time kicking up the tension. Things start off just as Benson Fisher is about to set foot into the jaws of a trap. He doesn’t know it until it’s too late, of course. But he learns soon enough, and he spends the rest of the book trying to navigate his way out.
Along the way, he has to try to figure out who to trust, and it isn’t easy. There are no adults in the school, which is surrounded by a wall that the teens can’t climb. Cameras watch their every move. Troublemakers get punished. Sometimes people vanish. And when they do, the occasional blood left behind makes it appear they leave in a body bag.
Whatever is going on at Maxfield, Benson wants out. You’d think that everyone else would want out too, but not so, and Benson struggles against the tide of other students who don’t want to rock the boat too far. It’s a recipe for conflict, and in Variant, we get that in spades.
As far as stories go, Variant is interesting and effective. There’s definitely a trend in YA fiction to tell dystopian stories. The success of The Hunger Games proves that. What I like about Variant is that within the conventions of dystopian fiction, Wells manages to find a way to make the story both referential and original. What I mean is, as a reader, you can’t help but compare Variant to other classic YA novels about schools and social orders set up by kids, including A Separate Peace and Lord of the Flies. That’s not a problem; most good fiction makes me think of other books I’ve read. Writers play with ideas and events they’ve read in other books as a matter of course. It’s part of the fun of writing.
What’s especially great about Variant, though, is that Wells gives a nod to other stories without writing like a copycat. He manages to be original. There are elements in Variant that made me think of The Stepford Wives and 1984 (other dystopian stories, though not for young adults). But the end of the book went in a direction that I definitely did not expect. I like it when an author can surprise me, and Wells definitely did. As a result, I can’t wait to read the sequel to Variant when it comes out. (I don’t know when that will be, but I hope it will be soon.)
Wells also does a fine job with the characterization. To an extent, some of the teens seem older than their years, but since most of them have been at Maxfield for a year or more, I assume the environment and its pressures have aged them beyond what you’d expect from a typical teen. Their reactions to life behind the walls are pretty much what you’d expect in a large group of people under pressure; some adapt with conformity while others are violent. It’s all believable.
The writing moves along at a nice clip; it’s a good, fast read, perfect for taking with you on vacation (which is what I did). I had the book finished in less than a week. If I’d been at home in my normal routine, I might have finished it even faster. I imagine teens will enjoy it, but adults will too, giving it crossover appeal that should help Wells sell more books.
Variant is definitely worth a read, especially for the unexpected direction it takes. To learn more about the book or its author, or to find out how to get a copy, visit Robison Wells’ website.
And don't forget to check out Robison's brother, author Dan Wells. I reviewed Dan's book I Am Not a Serial Killer earlier this year. (It must run in the family...)
I’d love to hear your take on Variant if (or should I say, when?) you read it. Let me know what you think in the comments below!
Copyright © 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.