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2021 Children's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge
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Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Maze Runner Goes to School in New YA Dystopian

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When 17-year-old Benson Fisher receives a scholarship to Maxfield Academy, he's thrilled. Nervous, but thrilled. After being bumped from foster home to foster home for most of his life, he hopes the private high school might provide the kind of haven he's never experienced before. Maybe he'll make friends for once. Maybe living with a bunch of other kids at a secluded boarding school will make them all super close. Like a family.

The knots in Benson's stomach pretzel even tighter when he sees the school. Housed in a sprawling mansion, Maxfield Academy looks like the kind of rich-kid prep school you see on t.v. Only it's stranded in the middle of the New Mexico desert, not in some quaint New England town. It's remote, exclusive and ... sinister. Benson can't quite put his finger on it, but he knows something's not quite right at his new school.

It doesn't take him long to discover there are no adults at Maxfield Academy. Divided into three gangs, the students run the school - as much as they can while taking orders from a nameless source that watches their every move and doles out punishments to make sure the rules are always followed. Constantly monitored by security cameras, the kids at Maxfield are forced to attend class, wear their uniforms, keep the school clean and orderly, play brutal war games, and get along. Small infractions result in demerits. Breaking the Big Four - No Sex, No Violent Fights, No refusing punishments, and No escaping - equals death.

Disturbed by his classmates' calm acceptance of the way Maxfield runs, Benson's determined to escape. He doesn't care if no one's ever done it before. Foster care has made him both tough and street smart; if anyone can get out of the place, he can. Only, the longer he stays, the more connected he feels to his new friends. He can't leave them all behind, but he can't get them to abandon Maxfield either. None of the kids at the school, including Benson, have anything to go home to - whoever runs Maxfield made sure of that - so maybe everyone else is right, maybe staying at the creepy institution is better than the alternative. Or not. When Benson stumbles on the terrifying secret behind Maxfield's elegant facade, he knows he has to get himself and every one of his classmates out. Now. But, how? Maxfield might as well be Alcatraz. And trying to get a whole pack of teenagers over an impenetrable wall feels a lot like suicide. Running out of time and options, Benson has to act - before it's too late for them all.

Variant, a new YA dystopian by Robison Wells (available October 4), feels so familiar it could have been subtitled The Maze Runner Goes to School. Although the story's got a twist toward the end that differentiates it from James Dashner's popular series, I still wanted more originality from this debut novel. Also subtlety and complexity and just more depth overall. That being said, I'm intrigued by the possibilities suggested by the ending of Variant. While I didn't love this first book in the series, I'll give the second one a chance, if only to see how Wells explains everything that's happened thus far. Despite my hang-ups with Variant, it's still got me asking that most ancient and compelling of questions: "What happens next?" In spite of myself, I need to know. So, yeah, I'm lukewarm about this one, but still willing to give the series a chance. I'm hoping Wells will surprise me. And good.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a lot of The Maze Runner and The Scorch Trials by James Dashner; also a little like the Hunger Games trilogy [The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay] by Suzanne Collins)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language (no F-bombs), violence, and mild sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Variant from the generous folks at Harper Teen. Thank you!


  1. Interesting. i was quite interested (especially from your title.) Nice post!

  2. Huh, I have this one and have heard lots of good stuff. And I guess since I loved Maze Runner... Well, we'll see.


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