Variant by Robison Wells
Two days and one night. I received Variant by Robison Wells on a Thursday and finished Saturday night. I had to know if the protagonist would successfully escape a mysterious fate at this school in the middle of nowhere.
There has to be way out of the school with no teachers. Benson Fisher knows it. After arriving at Maxfield Academy, he’s told students are sent lesson plans and teach the classes themselves. Detention, the students say, means death. So does trying to escape. With no principal, razor-wire fencing, a large wall, and surveillance cameras located everywhere, Benson knows something is wrong. Students belong to one of three groups: Havoc, who thrive on anarchy; the Society, who uphold the rules; and the Variants, who fall somewhere in-between. After joining the Variants, Benson constantly devises escape plans. When he sees something he shouldn’t, he wonders how far the school will go to hold a horrifying secret.
From the beginning of this story, there is a compulsion to continue. The end of the first chapter gives you a warning and a piece of information that Benson, the main character, will risk his life and others to refute. The tone of this story is bleak without being overly dark. Wells does not go out of his way to bombard the reader with nonsensical violence. All violence serves the plot and in my opinion, serves it well.
The characters Wells crafts are real. As Benson descends into this enigmatic world with rules but no teachers, with no adults save for the Iceman who announces punishments on a TV screen and the woman who brings each student, the reader finds themselves stepping into a dream of sorts. One senses the bizarre nature of the school very slowly. This methodical exposure to the setting of the school (which is a character, itself) shows how reluctant Benson is to accept anything happening around him, adding to the realism of the story. Benson’s fellow students each have their own ways of going about things, and it is easy to understand why the characters behave in certain manners. My personal favorite character is Benson, but I really want to know who the Iceman is.
The story moves along at a deliberate pace. Opening chapters are designed to introduce the reader to everything they need to know before moving forward. Other details are dropped in as the reader progresses, and I was never overwhelmed with information while reading. Wells has done a stellar job at delivering information without dragging the story down. What amazes me is how quickly the story moves once a character dies. With Benson’s escape attempt inevitable, Wells does not pretend Benson is dumb enough to consider staying for any reasons. I dare you to not read the last five chapters in one sitting.
I applaud how the author chose to handle the use of foul language. The characters only curse when the pressure is too great to control their emotions, so most of the book is free of any questionable words (“crap” is the substitute swear word). Foul language shows up only when the stakes are at their highest, which is at around the three-quarter point of the book.
This is the first book in a series, so not all questions are answered. Enough are answered for me to see if my guesses on the future of the series are correct. The cliffhanger ending is so tantalizing I wish I could buy the second book right now.
Variant is a good read for those who enjoy the Gone series, but might be looking for a mystery set in a more realistic world. It is dark without being depressing, and it challenges readers to deduce why the students are being held. I also recommend this book to adults who miss books about mysteries with extreme tension and worthy conclusions. I don’t know if Wells will be able to write these books fast enough for his inevitable fans to read them.