Variant by Robison Wells

Mercifully, the back cover of Variant gives little of the plot away, so I’ll follow that example. The basics are all you need, and all that you should have to experience this amazing book properly. Benson Fisher is the latest student at Maxfield Academy in New Mexico. He comes from a hard-knock life of foster homes in Pittsburgh and he’s ready for a new start at this seemingly picturesque boarding school. Then he finds out about the razor wire, surveillance cameras, and brutal punishments. There are no adults, just three gangs in a shaky truce—and behind it all a hidden purpose. Maybe the inner city was better, right?

Not necessarily. One of the most interesting themes of the book is the way the kids respond to long-term captivity. They all come from antisocial backgrounds and at Maxfield Academy have found a home for the first time. Some people think that life at Maxfield isn’t half bad, and even Benson sees a sunny side.

The tagline for Variant reads “Trust No One,” and that sounds like your clichéd suspenseful tagline…until Benson is given that same warning in the very first chapter. This is the kind of book that begins immediately. The rollicking pace is dictated by questions; when they’re asked and when they’re answered. Naturally, the book begins with a whole mess of questions, but many are answered soon enough; Robison Wells understands that the reader needs to be rewarded as well as left hanging. I hate when reviews describe authors as “self-assured,” but I can’t think of a better word for Wells. He handles his twists and turns without ever slowing down or jumping the gun.

One review quote claims, “The twist behind it all is my favorite since Ender’s Game.” I know this quote was probably put there so people would buy the book just to find out what the twist was, but Ender’s Game is an apt comparison for Variant. Plot wise, tonally, thematically; there are a lot of similarities. Both feature very smart teenagers under a lot of stress being forced to mature quickly. Like Ender’s Game, the scares here are shockingly real and depressing. This book is a moral nightmare. And at the center, a masterful protagonist.

Benson’s first person descriptions are straightforward and detailed.  His inner thoughts showcase his tough upbringing and point of view, without ever evoking pity. He is insightful, intelligent, but also rash and violent. Most importantly, Wells uses Benson to ground the potentially ludicrous narrative in reality. Benson asks the right questions and is always a little suspicious. (Some would say that is his fault, but I commend his carefulness). When Benson is told that he can never leave, he responds incredulously, and then tries immediately to escape. Benson Fisher, I am impressed.

Bottomline: Dystopian themes, moral quandaries, real life horror, and a rock solid hero. This book defines un-putdownable.

            

Evan is a learning teenage writer whose ambition is to become a film director someday, but not until he’s published a few books first. In the meantime, he spends his time playing drums in his jazz band 3 AM Groove, writing for the school paper, building sets on stage crew, and trying to perfect his 100 greatest movies of all time list. He does not like long walks on the beach.

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