Author: Robison Wells
Published: 4 October 2011
Publisher: HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollins
Genre: YA, mystery, thriller
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGally
My Rating: 8/10
Benson Fisher has been in foster care since he was five, constantly changing schools and families, never staying long enough to make friends. At 17, he applies for a scholarship to the prestigious Maxfield Academy in the hope of a better life. But when Benson arrives at the school he learns that it’s a trap. Students are not allowed to leave or communicate with anyone on the outside. They’re watched constantly by cameras and bound by endless rules. There are no adults. They have classes but no homework.
The school’s services and maintenance are all taken care of by the students, who have organised themselves into gangs with specific outlooks and responsibilities. The most powerful gang, The Society, thinks the best way to deal with the school is to play by the rules. Havoc just wants to be powerful and menacing. Students who don’t agree with either of those groups and who still dream of escape can join the V’s – the Variants – which is where Benson naturally ends up.
It’s a volatile little society that’s held together by peer pressure and fear, and functions on rewards and punishments. Keep in line and you can earn comforts and luxuries. Break the rules and you suffer punishments like being starved for two days. The four most serious offences – trying to escape, violent fighting, refusing punishments or having sex – will get you sent to detention, which as far as anyone knows means death.
Normally, I’m averse to YA set in schools, preferring the more adventurous kind, but Maxfield Academy isn’t your average school and I loved this novel. Unlike some stories with a mystery, it doesn’t waste your time pretending that nothing’s wrong, even though you already know what’s wrong because you read about it in the blurb. There’s no point in making Benson think he’s in a normal school, so as soon as he arrives there’s a student to explain everything to him. Benson is as appalled by this as anyone should be, and isn’t shy about voicing his views – the school is a prison, everyone is insane for pretending that things are normal, and he’s going to get the hell out.
Benson is actually the main reason I enjoyed this book so much. He’s an excellent character, not because of who he is as a person, but because of the function he serves as a narrator, as the perspective from which you experience the story. As a person, Benson is an all-round good guy – smart, easy to like, adaptable – but not interesting enough to be a great character based on personality alone. Quite frankly, I don’t really identify with him, even though I admire him. He’s a much more mature person than I was at 17, thinking very carefully and systematically about the mystery of the school and how he can escape. He’s also much more of a rebel than most teenagers. Yes, teenagers are known for being rebellious, but that’s usually only when it comes flouting the wishes of their parents and teachers. When it comes to their peers, they tend to bow to convention in a desperate attempt to be normal. Benson is under constant pressure from the other Maxfield students to just accept the fact that they’re trapped in this crazy school. Peer pressure has had a taming effect on all the students, but Benson is unique in his persistence, as the title implies.
You might argue that this makes him unusually bold for a teenager, but I think it works perfectly for the reader. I enjoy the experience of reading characters who are as brave as I would like to be, who take the courses of action that I want them to take, who feel and think as I do. For most of the novel, I felt perfectly in tune with Benson. He was outspoken enough that I saluted his honesty, but not so much that I thought he was taking it too far. His inner monologues echoed my own thoughts about the school and the students. When he considered possible theories about the purpose of the school, he never seemed to be missing the obvious or important factors, as characters often do in these situations, when authors are trying to drag out the tension. Instead, Benson makes lots of reasonable guesses, but he’s smart enough to doubt himself and keep in mind that he might be wrong. Despite his intelligence and determination he’s not flawless, but in his moments of error or weakness, my reaction was one of understanding, not frustration. Because he’d always been an outsider, I felt happy for him when he started to make friends and got caught up in a sweet adolescent romance, but also concerned about his clashes with more hostile students. The emotional connections he made were mirrored by my own increasing emotional connections to the story.
Essentially, Benson was the ideal narrator, because he perfectly satisfied my curiosity as a reader, but is also a sympathetic and likeable. It helps that Wells has written a unique mystery too. If he had used a more conventional plot, I would have been able to guess what was happening simply because I was familiar with the stereotypes, and I would have been bored and frustrated while I waited for Benson to figure out what I already knew. But luckily Wells had me wonderfully, totally stumped. I never managed to guess exactly what the truth was and thus Benson and I were – pardon the pun – always on the same page. I felt just as invested in the mystery and desperation as he was.
I particularly appreciated the very serious conflicts Benson has to face. He’s often persuaded or forced to reconsider his goal of escaping. The punishment for trying to escape is detention, but since no one ever returns from the detention room and the students often find blood in there, it’s assumed that detention is death. Benson believes that the school can only be defeated if the students all rise up against it, but to convince them to rebel would also be to convince them to risk their lives for his ideas. Isaiah, leader of The Society, goes so far as to call Benson selfish – if they all tried to escape, some people would undoubtedly be killed in the attempt, but Benson assumes he will be one of the survivors so he’s willing to let others die. Isaiah makes a good point, but it’s a difficult one to accept when you know that the school is wrong and feel rebellion is right.
And if they did escape, what then? The school specifically chose teenagers without friends or family – teenagers who wouldn’t be missed and have nowhere to go. At Maxfield they have friends, good food, and a comfortable place to sleep. No one denies that they’re basically being held prisoner, but it’s better and less frightening than the alternative. One student tells Benson that she used to be homeless. Even Benson himself has to admit that Maxfield’s facilities are far better than the crappy schools he’s been to, and as he finds friends and a potential girlfriend, he has to ask himself if he really wants to risk it all by starting a rebellion or escaping.
He’s actually on the verge of giving in, I think, when he stumbles across one of the school’s secrets, renewing his determination to find the truth and escape from the school. Wells’s storytelling is smooth and efficient here. Before this point, the story was driven by Benson learning about the school and raging against it, getting to know the students and bonding with some of them, and some paintball fights for a bit of action (the school makes the gangs play against each other). Just as things start to settle, you reach this explosive turning point that gives the plot fresh momentum. I finished the novel in a very tense binge-read, completely caught up in the urgency and the action spawned by Benson’s knowledge and what he decides to do with it. The story gets a tad brutal, but it felt right.
Variant ends on a fantastic, dizzying cliffhanger that seals the book’s excellence, if it was ever in doubt. The current YA market seems a bit stale at the moment, with many authors and publishers shamelessly milking the bestselling clichés for all they’re worth. I was so relieved and happy then, to find that Variant doesn’t bother with any of that crap and is that much more thrilling as a result. I was pleased to learn that Publisher’s Weekly named it one of the best books of 2011.
Unfortunately the ending also leaves you with as many questions as answers, to the extent that, after pausing for breath, I would have picked up the sequel before even getting off my chair. But the sequel – Feedback – has yet to be written. According to the author’s blog, he’s been diagnosed with severe panic disorder that’s already cost him his day job, and the medication he’s taking makes it difficult for him to write. However, he’s said that things are slowly improving, and I can only hope that it continues to do so because he has something great to offer the YA genre.