Variant by Robison Wells
UPDATED: I reviewed this in a vlog too for those of you who prefer vlog reviews/are too lazy to read this
In a word: What?!
In a sentence: Maze Runner meets upper east side boarding school.
"Benson Fisher thought that 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."
This story is remarkably unique in many aspects, but I couldn't help but draw the parallels to The Maze Runner by James Dashner: A male protagonist stuck in a seemingly inescapable place attempts to lead his fellows to freedom. The major plot structure has similarities for sure, but the feel of the books is also comparable. They're both mysterious and suspenseful thrillers and I was at the edge of my seat (so to speak, because I wasn't in a chair-- but I was up until 4am so that I could finish the book) for the duration of the book. I'm going to avoid talking about plot points, because spoilers suck and especially for this book because there are some seriously epic reveals halfway through the book.
This brings me to an important note to mention: Variant has two very distinct parts. The first half of the book reads very much like the beginning of The Maze Runner with Benson focused on trying to unravel the mysteries of Maxfield Academy so that he can escape. Around the middle point of the book, everything goes a little Gossip Girl or High School prom with people coupling up and preparing for a school dance. At this point in the book, I almost put it down-- almost. It all just gets a little too froofy for me and I just wanted to yell at them all for being idiot teenagers. However, just as I was about to give up and read something else, something AMAAAAAAZING happened. And it crushes me inside that I can't tell you all what it is. I don't think I've ever read a book with a more epic plot twist. When I realized what was happening, I jumped up and down and spluttered a lot. I tried to make words happen, but I honestly couldn't verbalize my excitement (not that it mattered because I was alone) and I texted my friend, Sarah (she'll probably come up a lot since she's my literary bro), a jumble of keyjamming and accidental emoticons. What I'm trying to say here is that the lull that happens right before the reveal is totally worth it. The false sense of security Wells creates is SO AWESOME in retrospect, and it makes the plot twist just that much twistier.
I want to take a moment to talk about the characters. I'm not usually a fan of male main characters or narrators. This is probably because I'm female and raging feminist etc. But also, I find that male protagonists often narrate very minimally or don't notice the things I would notice (I mean, they're dudes so I guess it makes sense that they'd describe boobs before... well... anything else) but Benson worked for me. I was only ever struck with how very male he was a few times when he did something stupid and typically male (not that women don't do colossally stupid things too, they're just very different varieties of stupid). Benson's narration was to the point, but not dismissive of details, and it wasn't too minimal, but definitely didn't even venture into the realm of flowery or purple prose. I found Benson entirely believable as well as a pleasant narrator.
As for the supporting cast, the other male characters were all interesting and well developed; there's no mixing up Isiah and Curtis (who is totally swoon worthy). The girls, however, are a different story. The gangs (The Society, Havoc, and Variant) differentiate the characters somewhat, but aside from the traits associated with their gangs they're all remarkably similar. This may have something to do with the romantic aspect of the story. Apart from the girls who are clearly taken (Carrie) or treat him like a sack of dirt (Laura and Mouse), Benson had chemistry with all the female characters. At first I thought he was going to fall in love with Lily-- it would have made sense since they share the desire to leave maxfield-- but then it starts looking like he's going for Jane. I also felt like he and Becky had something going on the whole time, or at least there was some attraction/flirting going on, especially near the end. I guess the main problem I had was that with the exception of Lily (who turned out to be pretty awesome just when Benson moved on to Jane) all the girls seemed a little weak-- like they didn't have strong desires or leadership qualities. Aside from the female characters' apparent weakness in some areas, they were okay. None of them were unbearably annoying, which I'd say is a pretty good achievement.
All in all, Variant is a strong debut from Robison Wells. The sequel, Feedback, came out October 2nd, so look for both in stores or online! If you haven't read Variant, I recommend it to anyone who likes intense thrillers or dystopian. If you've read it already, I'd love to hear your opinions. Which would you be: Society, Havoc, or Variant?
Some blog info: Midterms have hit me pretty hard this week so I haven't been able to update until now. I'm going to try to post full reviews when I can, but I'm actually reading faster than I can post reviews, so I'm going to employ a new method. I'll post full reviews of books I feel deserve one/ones I have a lot to say about, but if it's an older book or one I feel has already been reviewed and talked to death, I'm going to start posting just very short (one or two sentences) reviews. Next up: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief