Variant by Robison Wells
Something that I think most readers (myself included) tend to forget is that dystopian fiction can take place on a small scale as well as a big one. The most commonly cited instance of this is Lord of the Flies, and any book that uses a confined setting for a societal breakdown automatically gets this comparison. It’s even more pronounced when the book involves children or teens. Variant puts its dystopian ideas into a boarding school format and explores the consequences.
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“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.”
I really didn’t know what to expect from this novel when I picked it up. I knew that it was “school with a dark secret”, but that was about it. Once I got into it, I found it to be a compelling read. There are plenty of hints as to the severity of the control imposed on the kids inside, as well as hints that sometimes students vanish and are never seen again. The rules that are in place to keep the students in line aren’t always enforced, though, so readers are given the impression that there’s more going on than has been revealed.
One thing I wish that the author had done a bit better was character development. I found Benson and his friends to be not quite as fleshed out as they could have been. Benson himself is sometimes annoyingly single-minded in his desire to escape, to the point that it can overwhelm all other concerns. I liked it more when his curiosity got the better of him and he began exploring, because that gives the reader valuable information about the setting. I suppose that in a book where the setting is the main driving force of the plot, the characters don’t need an incredible amount of depth, but a little more would have been nice.
On that note, I had to think about how I felt about the way the students grouped themselves. This is the aspect where the Lord of the Flies comparison comes into play, as the kids form distinct “tribes” within the school. I wasn’t sure at first if I bought the way it was done, but I did come to feel that it worked well in this scenario. There are those who want to follow the rules and get rewarded, those who want to do whatever they please no matter the consequences, and those who want to be left alone. I think my hesitance to accept it was because the groups seemed a bit extreme in their actions, but the basic idea is sound.
Midway through the novel, there’s a twist that I really did not expect. I had been reading the book as strictly suspense, and after the twist, I started reading it more as a science fiction novel than anything else. The twist kind of came out of left field and was very surprising, so much so that I wished that it had been teased a bit in the text before it actually happened. From that point on, the book takes a very different turn and becomes more urgent, because that twist changes how you view every single character in the book.
This is a story that starts slowly and builds up momentum as you read. For the most part, I did enjoy the way the plot unfolded, and I already have the sequel queued up and ready to read on my Nook. Variant is a solid addition to teen science fiction, with enough suspense and surprises to satisfy readers looking for an exciting tale.
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on November 2, 2012.