Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Review: Variant by Robison Wells

UPDATE (effective until April 13, 2012): Robison Wells is hosting a contest to give away an ARC of Feedback, his follow up to Variant.

If you want to enter (and you do, you really, really do), head over to Robison's website for more info. And if you win, I expect you to share, you shellfish bastard! Yeah, I called you an ungrateful mollusk. So what?!

Feedback ARC contest:

Welcome to another review in our ongoing series aimed at exposing YA writers to the psychology of that unique creature variously known as Man, Guy, Dude and Forget-It-You-Moron-If-You-Don't-Know-Why-I'm-Mad-I'm-Not-Going-To-Tell-You!

On tap today we have cold-filtered suspense from Robison Wells' Variant. Pull up a chair and I'll pour you a glass!

From Oblong Books:
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.
You kids today, you have it easy. When you pick up a book, it usually gets started on the first page. Back in my day, figuring out what was going on in our favorite novels could take days. Granted, we only had 24 letters in the alphabet back then (we made due without T and R). So when you picked up a book and read “I was a dak and somy nigh,” you had no clue what was going on until you met with the other Masons at the Lodge to figure things out. But then Pesiden Onald Eagan took office and things got better.

Anywho, Variant. The action gets started right away. This doesn't mean you know exactly what's happening (a deficit which remains even after finishing the book, and I mean that in a good, gimme-more kind of way) but you're hooked from the first page.

The main character, Benson Fisher, has been bounced around from foster home to foster home (he remembers his foster families by number instead of name). But hope for a new, better life arrives in the form of a scholarship to the seemingly idyllic Maxfield Academy.

Yeah. Good luck with that.
Life: Hey, Benson! I got good news and bad news! 
Benson: What's the good news? 
Life: You got a scholarship and you're going to Maxfield Academy! 
Benson: And the bad news?
Life: You got a scholarship and you're going to Maxfield Academy!

Within minutes of arriving at his new school, Benson realizes paranoia is the only subject taught with any regularity. You would think a place with no adult supervision would be paradise for teenagers but then it turns out not so much. Think Lord of the Flies meets West Side Story. Without the musical interludes.
Check out my wide stance, daddy-O!
And that's part of the appeal here. Variant melds a number of different genres and tropes from such disparate sources as X-Files, Lost, The Prisoner, Tower Prep, The Cube, Westworld and The Thing, just to name a few non-literary examples. It's like the turducken of tasty paranoid thrillers. And yet it's not derivative; Variant carves out its own, creepy place in your psyche. You know, in the corner, near that old ice chest with the words DoN'T LoOk InSiDE!! written in blood. You should probably get rid of that, by the way.

Your psyche's neighbors are collecting funds for a beautification project
Benson is a likable rebel-turned-leader who never gives up hope of escaping. His struggle to figure out who he can trust and whether escape is even possible is gripping and, I believe, appeals to guys in particular. See, every guy I've ever met has contemplated how he would survive if he ever got thrown in jail (which is where Benson is, despite Maxfield Academy's pleasant sounding name). Not sure why, but most guys have given at least a passing thought to how they'd survive a prison riot or what unique skills they might barter for cigarettes and canned tuna. Me? I would use my remarkable whittling skill to carve pornographic scenes into bars of soap. Plus, I cook a mean prison loaf that pairs nicely with pruno.
I miss pumicing your corns, baby.
In addition to all this, Variant also throws in a very surprising twist that only deepens the mystery and left me searching for the sequel release date (October, 2012). To say any more about it would ruin the surprise. And ever since I found out what Soylent Green was (hint: it ain't turkey!), I don't like spoilers.

I really enjoyed Variant and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys tense mysteries where nothing is as it seems. It also has a strong male lead and lots of guy appeal. Also, it makes a great gift for the white collar criminal in your life.


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