Review: Variant by Robison Wells

By Robison Wells
384 Pages

Looking for a way out of the foster care system and into a better life, Benson Fisher applies to the seemingly prestigious Maxfield Academy. Not long after arriving, however, he realizes that the kids are not are not all right at Maxfield. There are no real classes – in fact, there are no adults anywhere. The school is divided into violent gangs who currently live under an uneasy truce. Worst of all, the students are trapped at the school and anyone who tries to  leave disappears, never to be seen again. Anyone who tries to break the rules is taken to “detention” and dragged off in the middle of the night, also never to be seen again.

This is one of those books that’s really tough to review without giving spoilers, because there are a couple of really major plot twists. Much like an M. Night Shyamalan movie, if you know the twists going in, it really takes away from the story. Unlike a Shyamalan movie, you actually give a damn.

First of all, on a personal note, I loved all of the references to my hometown of Pittsburgh. Benson grew up here and there are a few little shout outs here and there to local stuff. In fact , at one point Benson mentions that his longest stint in a foster home was in the neighborhood of Elliott. While I didn’t grow up in Elliott itself, I did live close enough to play on their neighborhood softball team:

That’s me in the front row, second from the left. How awesomely 90s is that spiral perm?

So obvs Wells won big points from me with all of the ‘Burgh references. I did have one teeny-tiny little bone to pick, because at one point Benson mentions South Side and says something like “not exactly tourist hot spots.” South Side actually is a tourist hot spot. It’s a neighborhood filled with bars, coffeehouses, boutiques, college students and hipsters. Any time someone is coming in from out of town and asks what is a must-see, any Pittsburgher worth his or her salt will say “Plan on a night in South Side, and stay there if you can.” More tourists have gotten kicked-in-the-ass drunk on the South Side than any other area of town. But again, that’s my own out of control civic pride issue and it’ll be a sticking point for basically no one else on Earth. And to be fair, Wells did hit the nail on the head with the fact that Benson is always wearing a Steelers sweatshirt. It’s actually illegal here to have a wardrobe that isn’t comprised of at least 25% pro-sports related clothing. Seriously. People have actual heart attacks here over Steelers football.

But to actually get back to the book – it’s a dystopian with a nice helping of sci-fi. I liked Benson (and not just because we share a hometown). He’s smart and resourceful, and he’s brave enough to question what in the actual fuck is going on at Maxfield Academy, since nobody else seems to be willing to. He’s not satisfied to go along with the Stepford behavior that the other kids are displaying, even though they tell him to shut up and go with the flow. He continues to be the voice of reason, and in this case “reason” means “does not want to live as a prisoner in a crazy ass school where the primary activities seem to be playing paintball and acting like a total douche for no discernible reason.” And there are some mega-douches in the school, both male and female. Just complete shitheels that you really want to see given the old KGB treatment and disappeared in the middle of the night. I did wonder how Maxfield Academy seemed to just be operating under the radar and nobody noticed that kids went in and never came out, but Robison gives a satisfactory answer for this.

Without giving away the story’s major twist, I will just say that I didn’t see it coming at all. AT ALL. I was all…

…and I made this squeaky, shriek-y noise that I hope I never make again. I actually looked around like, “What in the name of crap just happened?” Needless to say, I was glad I was alone in the room. And once the twist happened everything went crazy (in a good way). Shit was going down in the last 1/3 of the book, and the pace was just nuts right up until the ending. The very last couple of pages did confuse me a little, but: a) I was reading long after I should have been in bed because I kept thinking I’d just read one more page so I might have been sleep deprived; and b) I think that was intentional and I’m certain that it’ll be explained in the next book, which I have already added to my to-read list. Recommended.

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1 Comment

  1. Review: Feedback (Variant #2) by Robison Wells « Attack the Stacks

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