4ish stars (yes I'm a little wishy-washy on this point)
Variant is one of those books that's hard to review. (Yes I know I say that a lot!).
It's a book with a First Half. Then a Second Half. And I want to judge them separately. Because by the end I couldn't put the book down, almost finishing it in a loud chinese restaurant because I was that engaged. But as much as I enjoyed the second half, I can't ignore the first half of the book.
The first half I kinda wanted to smack the main character. Have you heard that famous Albert Einstein quote? "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." For me that's the first half of this book. Benson has only one thing on his mind. And it's something he SHOULD have on his mind. Only problem is that Benson has a bad case of the "doesn't stop and think."
"No one talked about escape. I tried to bring up the subject once, but it died out fairly quickly." Benson my friend, I hate to tell you this but you did not bring it up once. I searched on my Kindle. The word escape appears 76 times. You might have been a wee bit obsessed.
BUT then comes the second half where everything changed. And I could not put the book down. The problem? I can't actually TELL you much about the second half without ruining the nicely done twist.
When we first meet Benson (which FYI had me thinking of Law & Order SVU every time they said his name) he's on his way to Maxfield Academy. He thinks a scholarship to an elite private school is his escape from the foster system. But Maxfield Academy is not what he thinks. It's not a wonderful opportunity, it's more like a prison than school. Instead he's trapped behind bullet proof glass and barbed wire fences, with no adults. The school is controlled by 3 different gangs and breaking a rule equals detention and detention equals death. It's not exactly the bright future Benson hopes for .
I feel like I should be able to sympathize with Benson. Maxfield Academy is horrible and it does suck. He's RIGHT about pretty much everything. But his approach is wrong. He is single-mindly obsessed with escape. He's practically banging his head against the wall hoping to knock a stone loose. I spent the first half of the book wanting to shout at him. "QUIT RUNNING HEADLONG INTO DANGER! STOP AND THINK!!!!!" Benson is not much of a thinker, at least not at first.
But then about halfway through the book, just when Benson is finally calming down, falling for a girl and starting to get complacent, everything suddenly changes. Like BOOM I'm going to be a different book now. Like me better now? As a matter of fact yes I do like you better. You should have dyed your hair this color pages ago, does wonders for your pacing! Honestly the second half of this book made me question my opinion of the first. "Surely it can't be that annoying Cassi? Look how much you like it now!" So I suppose there's always the chance I was in a bad mood when I read the first half. I don't think so, but you never know.
Suddenly you can't trust anyone. Benson finally stops running in circles and starts thinking strategically. For me that's when the book gets good. When he stops banging his head against the proverbial wall and starts planning. Finally he's trying to figure out the big mystery of the school and tries to come up with a feasible escape plan (whereas his plan before was just jump the wall and hope not to die). This gives the reader the opportunity to follow his investigation and put the pieces of the puzzle together along with Benson.
Then ending is twisty, leaving the reader on a cliffhanger that made me say "HUH". I re-read the passage and I was still confused, but it was a good confusion (I was a Lost fan, clearly I have a thing for confusing cliffhangers). The ending left me curious enough that I want to read book 2.
This book has a Dystopian-vibe without actually being a Dystopia. It's a little bit sci-fi, a little bit thriller and a little bit something else that I can't place my finger on. But overall I liked it. The first portion may be a 3, but the last part is solidly 4+. In fictional math that equals a 4 star review for me.
So even though Benson is a little obnoxious at the beginning of the book, bear with him because he gets smarter. There's an interesting mystery, a creepy school and life or death stakes. The book is clearly meant to be part of a series (trilogy is my guess) because you don't get all the answers in this book. Assuming that the new and improved Benson plans to make an appearance in the next book I want to continue this series. And the cliffhanger better be worth it! Not just a shark with a random dharma logo!