Thursday, June 7, 2012

Review: Variant by Robison Wells

Variant by Robison Wells

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Variant is a YA tale best enjoyed by its target market, and tolerable as something to check if it's appropriate for a younger audience. While the premise initially intrigued me, my curiosity is sated, and I will not be continuing to read this series.

In Variant, 17-year-old Benson Fisher has a scholarship to Maxfield Academy, which is his escape from bouncing from one foster home to the next. Upon entry, though, he finds that the students are locked in, and tracked by chips that can't be removed. His goal is escape, and he makes no secret of his resentment of being trapped there, even if the world outside is no better.

The first half of the book is devoted to daily life at school, the three "gangs" that everyone joins and which determine how glamorous your job will be (students also perform all the work, except for shadowy behind-the-scenes stuff), and the paintball challenges the students participate in on a random basis. There are several things presented as true with little to no proof, which, I suppose, is why they're using teenagers rather than adults. I imagine teenagers as slightly more skeptical, but maybe that was just me.

The early sections have an awful lot of navel-gazing. By that I mean the perspective character sits and thinks and speculates and jumps to the wrong conclusions. When I realized this is a series rather than a standalone, it made more sense, but it didn't make me like it. The author had to put in a lot of filler to fluff this up to a whole book, so that it could end on a proper cliffhanger.

The second half of the book is far more compelling. Things are revealed, events are triggered, and the stakes are raised. Were the entire book paced like the second half, this book would be four stars, at least.

The thing is, I think a teen reader would like that first half of the book. I found it an overwrought metaphor for feeling trapped in high school and feeling suffocated by one's life and how people backstab one another without provocation, and the artificiality of it all, but I imagine a teen reader might appreciate the transparency. Also, it has the wish fulfillment of high school without adults, plus being able to shoot your classmates with paintballs, with a heavy dose of "Be careful what you wish for." I saw the twist at the end coming a mile away, but I think younger readers might be surprised.

As for appropriate ages, I can see this being read and enjoyed by middle school and up. There's some violence, and people die, and there are bone-exposing injuries. The description isn't terribly graphic, though the main character is beaten up constantly, and people are, evidently, bags of blood, considering how they bleed everywhere at the slightest provocation.

I listened to this book on audio, and I had no quibbles with the audio production. The narrator reads clearly and distinctly, and depicts female characters without affecting a falsetto. He has enough inflections in his repertoire that different characters were even identifiable without dialogue tags. My only issue is that, when people shout in the book, he raised his voice, and I had to turn down my volume. People shout a lot in this book.

Overall, if you're between 13 and 17, you'll probably like Variant. If you're younger, you may want to wait a couple of years. If you're older, and you're not screening it for your preteen reader, you may be disappointed.

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