by Robison Wells
HarperTeen, October 2011
young adult sci-fi
Maxwell Academy was supposed to be Benson Fisher’s ticket out of his crummy foster homes and low-grade public schools. What he didn’t count on was not being able to get out once he was in. Forced to join one of three gangs, Society, Havoc or Variant, Benson struggles with a schooling program with paintball as a sport, zero adults around and cameras in every corner of the building. When a secret behind the school unpeels, it becomes clear that if they want to survive, they’ll have to escape. The problem? Everyone who has tried to escape before wound up dead.The cover:
The translucent blue hue over top the image with the shaded title is pleasing, especially since it reminds me of another excellent cover, Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones. The two figures are indistinct, so the running away vibe that (I think) they’re supposed to be giving off isn’t quite achieved, but overall not a bad cover.
*This review was originally intended for my newspaper column, but the paper closed at the end of 2011. :( So the review is written in a rather pompously professional style. Put up with me, please. :P
Robison Wells’s young adult debut is immaculately paced with an engaging lead and enough different elements from previous ideas to render it believably unique. Though the no-adults concept is straight-up Lord of the Flies, instead of the degeneration of civilization, we see a haphazard society set up for a very 21st-century purpose, which is revealed through an intriguing, if not wholly original, twist.
Benson comes off as a practical, level-headed protagonist, thanks to his continued focus on escaping without bowing to the plentiful peer pressure. The little angst focused on his worse-than-dreary past and the even mix between teen-hormone-fuelled romantic relationships and non-repetitive planning for escape all add to the sensible, trust-worthy impression received by the reader.
Within any kind of educational environment, a distinct hierarchy of the students exists, and Variant successfully highlights this. It serves as both a smooth method of developing side characters and leaves the true enemies in ambiguity. The plot moves along at a well-managed clip: after a particularly horrific and revealing event, Wells shifts to speculation through Benson to help stack the mystery around the school ever higher, followed by a smaller incident that serves to up the stakes yet another notch lest the reader falter.
Though Variant finishes in a cliffhanger, there will be little hair-pulling done on the reader’s part as the end opens up a new venue of possibilities rather than teasing the reader with crucial information. This is a promising start to what foreshadows to be an addictive series.
Rating: 4.2 out of 5