Author: Robison Wells

Publication: 2011, Harper Teen

Pages: 373

Overall Rating: bth_4-star-rating_zps38e772a0[1]                       

Rating for Action: bth_35_zps7a173504[1]

Quantity of Action: bth_3-star-rating_zps73bdba73[1]

Age Category: 13+

Brief Summary:  Benson Fisher has been tossed from one foster home to another – 33 in all – since he was five years old.  With the homes have come a string of crappy schools.  Now he thinks he’s finally found a way out.  He got a scholarship to Maxfield Academy, a private school in New Mexico that runs a special scholarship program just for orphans.  But Benson has made a terrible mistake.  Maxfield is no ordinary school.  It’s a prison.  There are no adults, and the kids – all of whom are orphans just like Benson – are trapped inside.  They’ve divided themselves into three gangs, and exist within a tense truce, as all too many of them remember the deadly gang war that once dominated life at Maxfield.  As soon as Benson arrives he’s forced to ally himself with one of the gangs.  Food, lessons, and supplies – punishments and rewards – everything Benson and the other kids have comes through hidden elevators and the school dictates their every move, watching them through hundreds of cameras.  Benson can’t stand being trapped like this.  All he thinks about is escape.  But escape may be impossible, and when he learns the school’s true secret it will take all of his wits just to survive.

Age of Main Character: 17

What I Liked the Most: Going into this book I wasn’t at all sure how Wells was going to pull off creating a prison with no guards.  When Benson arrives, it seems like the only things keeping the students in are a 12 foot brick wall and a fence topped with razor wire – formidable, but hardly impossible to overcome.  But as the book delves further into the gangs and the inner workings of the school the complex system of rewards and punishments used to keep the students in line became ever more clear. Wells has done an incredible job of creating a realistic environment where Maxfield can be both a school and a prison at the same time.

At first, I found myself wishing that Wells had chosen to set the story a bit earlier in time – during the gang wars that once rocked the school.  But the more I read, the more I realized that setting the story in the time after the truce was perfect, because it allows Wells to shift the focus of the story from a basic gang brawl to how the students live and operate with a prison school.  There’s the Society, which thrives by following and enforcing all the rules, Havoc, which has fun breaking all the rules it can get away with while still doing their work and earning the points necessary to buy themselves a lot of nice rewards, and the Variants, which exist on the fringes between the two other groups.  Watching how the groups interacted with each other and with the school – and how they all reacted to Benson’s continued talk of escape – was actually a lot of fun.

What I Liked the Least: Benson is almost single minded in his desire to escape.  While he does get distracted at times, thoughts of escape are never far away.  He’s not the only one to think this way – other people have tried to escape and one tries during the course of the story – but his attitude regarding escape seems particularly intense and by the end of the story it’s clear that he’s pushed the boundaries farther than any other student at Maxfield.   Now, obviously, he has to do that in order to drive the story forward.  The problem was that I never really understood what motivated Benson and what made him more bent on escape than anyone else.  Given how crappy his life had been before, he just as easily could have settled into life at the school – good food, people who want to be his friends and more, fun activities.  All that could and should have appealed to Benson, but it doesn’t.  It just pushes him to get angry with everyone else for being so complacent.  And hard as I tried, I could never really identify what exactly it was that made Benson fight so much harder than everyone else.

My only other problem with the story was that there were too many characters.  I felt like I had a pretty decent handle on all the main characters, but there are a lot of supporting characters out there and I got lost trying to keep track of them all and remembering what they were supposed to be like.  More than once, when Wells drew some minor character into the action, I found myself thinking Who’s this?  Have I ever seen them before?  I don’t know.

How Good was the Action?  There’s two kinds of action in this story.  First, there’s the paintball wars.  Paintball is the only kind of sport anyone at Maxfield plays and they take it very seriously.  There a few scenes involving paintball as Benson learns his way around the game.  The action here is fine.  There’s some great strategy involved, and it was fun to watch.  But it is paintball, after all.  So the action wasn’t especially tense.  Whether Benson won or lost, the worst that was going to happen was that he’d get hit with a few paintballs and his team would be punished by going without food for a couple days.  Not fun, but hardly life threatening.

Second, are Benson’s escape attempts and some of the fights that take place between different groups of students.  The action here is quite well done, and final escape attempt was riveting.  Wells really knows how to throw you into the action and get your blood pumping.  There’s some great blow-by-blow detail, and Benson’s emotional reactions to the violence going on around him are never far beneath the surface.

How Engaging was the Story?  This is a really imaginative story and it’s peppered with some great plot twists.  Every time Benson found himself getting happy and thinking maybe life at Maxfield wasn’t so bad, Wells found some new and innovated way to rip the rug out from under him.

My only real stumbling block was the sheer number of characters involved in this story.  There were simply too many other kids, a lot of whom I never got to know very well – and thus didn’t particularly care about.  Now, most of the action does revolve around Benson, and even though I never entirely understood his motivations I did like him as a character.  I cared about his relationships and I cared what happened to him.  And combined with all the plot twists Wells tosses out it was enough to keep me chugging along right to the very end.  But I think the novel could have been even more engaging if the number of characters had been cut in half.

Overall Assessment: Variant takes a fun idea – a frankly, what can be more fun than the notion of a school without any adults – and tosses it on its head, turning Maxfield Academy into a freaky, experimental prison school where everyone could turn out to be your enemy.  It’s a cool concept, and despite tossing a few too many characters into the mix, Wells has come out with a scary and highly entertaining read.  I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

Profanity: A little, but nothing too serious.

Sex: Some kissing, holding hands.

Violence: Yes.  People get beaten with a metal pipe, stabbed with a knife and a pair of pruning shears, and shot.  Some of it can be a bit graphic, especially the scenes with the metal pipe and pruning shears. There is definitely blood.

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