Variant by Robison Wells
Read by Michael Goldstrom
Length: 8 Hrs 5 Mins
Genre: Young Adult Thriller
Quick Thoughts: Variant is a wonderfully unexpected thrill of a novel, which never allows readers to settle into their assumptions. A novel that should appeal to teenagers and adults, it is full of quirky characters, and ripe with an overriding mystery that will keep you guessing even after the last page is turned.
There are a lot of reasons I may choose a novel. Most of them are pretty typical, I like the author, good reviews, recommendation from a friend, peer pressure, demonic possessions, mind control, subliminal advertisements, or I saw an attractive woman reading it on the subway. Yet, none of these are the reason I decided to read Variant by Robison Wells. I choose Variant because I am a big fan of the author’s brother. Dan Wells wrote one of my favorite series, and its conclusion, I Don’t Want to Kill You may just be my favorite audiobook of 2011. Another of my favorite authors, Larry Correia, recently did a very successful "book bomb" for Variant, where he encouraged his fans to purchase this novel to give it a boost in its Amazon ratings. I took part in this literary explosion, purchasing a few copies as Christmas gifts. Of course, doing this meant I needed to listen to it as well. Variant is a novel for Young Adults about a teenager named Benson Fisher who accepts a scholarship to a mysterious school to escape his life in the Pittsburgh foster care system. I have seen many reviews who label Variant as a Young Adult Dystopian novel along the lines of The Hunger Games. Personally, I wouldn’t label Variant dystopian for the same reasons I won’t label Lord of the Flies dystopian. While it deals with an oppressive ruling system of sorts, it isn’t a large scale oppression but a very intimate one. I can understand the linking of this novel to books like The Hunger Game and The Maze Runner series, because it shares an overall feel with these novels. So, while not a classic dystopian novel, fans of Young Adult Dystopian series will definitely embrace this title.
For me, Variant is easily the best Young Adult novel I have read this year. Of course, I should temper that statement by saying that I have only really read four other novels that I consider Young Adult. Variant is full of everything the 15 year old version of me would have loved, an eerie unsettling setting, quirky characters, a sense of injustice brought on by oppressive administration, and a grand sense of adventure. Wells doesn’t spend a lot of time setting up the world, but thrusts you right into the mystery. From the opening you know there is something very wrong with Maxfield Academy. Variant isn’t an easy novel to tag with labels, every time you become comfortable in your assumptions about the novel, what secrets Maxfield Academy holds, the true motivations of the various groups of the school and even the actual genre of the novel, Wells throws you for a loop. Yet, while Wells keeps you off balance with the flow of the novel, he grounds it in a likeable, yet authentically teenage main character. I love the fact the Benson isn’t your typical uber-teenager that seems to appear so often in science fiction, young adult or otherwise. He is a typical 17 year old, full of flaws, and tempted by the lure of the school. He doesn’t show up and dominate the school academically, socially or athletically, but struggles to find a place. This allows the reader to experience the mystery of the story in a way they can truly relate to. Variant is the first novel of a series, so don’t expect a lot of closure at the end because Wells definitely leaves you wanting more. Overall, Variant is a wonderfully unexpected thrill of a novel, which never allows readers to settle into their assumptions. A novel that should appeal to teenagers and adults, it is full of quirky characters, and ripe with an overriding mystery that will keep you guessing even after the last page is turned.
This is my first experience with narrator Michael Goldstrom. I feel Goldstrom gave a solid reading of the novel. His narrative voice fit the overall theme of the novel well and his characterizations were well done. As someone who listens to a lot of audiobooks, I may have been spoiled by some amazing performance. Part of me wishes Goldstrom would have taken a few more risks with his characters. There are a lot of colorful characters at Maxfield Academy, yet his reading didn’t highlight the individual quirkiness of some of them. Michael Goldstrom is a good narrator, but I think if he does takes some of those risks, he has the potential to become a great narrator. Robison Wells has created a great canvas for a narrator to showcase their art, and I am quite interested to see what Goldstrom can do with the next edition to this series.