[ Book Review ] There’s a Dead Canary in the Coal Mine

Meg’s Review: Variant by Robison Wells

Audiobook read by Michael Goldstrom 

When we made the tagline for The Canary Review, I had thought it was just sort of a fun phrase. After all, we were still selecting books that had a lot of promise, ones that we would most likely love and be excited to pass on to all of you.

But let me tell you, Canaries: I took a bullet for you on this one.

When I was about halfway through Variant, I shambled out to the web to see what others were saying about it. One review on BN.com opens as thus: “No matter what anyone tells you, it is unique and original and fresh and omg and thrilling, but it is not dystopian.”

That quote is approximately 1/6th correct. I’ll let you guess which part that is at the end of the review.

Variant opens with Benson Fisher  happily on his way to a new boarding school. He is an orphan who has long been caught up in the foster care system and is excited to find a place that was geared towards helping out those in similar situations. But when he reaches Maxfield Academy, he finds out the truth: something is terribly, terribly wrong with the school. Besides the subtle tension between cliques and the lack of any adult supervision (besides the security cameras everywhere), there is the constant threat of Detention for rule breaking. And it’s implied early on that it’s not the fluffy, go-write-some-lines sort of Detention.

I originally saw the book pitched as a meeting of Lord of the Flies and Michael Grant’s popular series Gone. And I am really unsure why the comparison to Gone is there; Gone already is a modern-day reimaging of Lord of the Flies, with heaps of social and moral commentary, a touch of cannibalism, and plenty of action-packed tension. With Variant, the only similarity to Lord of the Flies I can spot is the lack of adults. There is absolutely no social commentary deeper that ‘gangs are bad’ and it certainly isn’t as dark as either Lord of the Flies or Gone.

That’s not to say there isn’t violence in Variant. Actually, there is plenty. But rather than being integrated into the story, it feels gratuitous, like something that was flung in because the plot was getting too tame. Variant appears to be going down a checklist of what a PG-13 sci-fi action flick would look like in book form: main character chooses the loser gang (check), he gets in some fights with bullies (check), meets a hot chick (a redhead [check]), has a paintball match (check 3x), has a school dance (check), has a make-out session (check), etc, etc, etc.

I think, like the I Am Number Four series, this book is likely geared towards teenage boys. But if that’s the case, I must say that publishers must have fairly low opinion of the ability of teenage boys to tackle anything deeper than the moral of ‘working together is better than working apart.’

Now, all of that said, if you are looking for some fluffy sci-fi fiction, Variant wouldn’t take more than a day to read. The prose is fast-paced (if at time a little nonsensical), and the dialogue is decent. If you want a real treat, snag the audiobook. Michael Goldstrom is one of the best readers I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. I strongly suspect that the only reason I finished the book was because of his delightful voice and interpretation of the text.

Remember that quote? 1/6th of it was definitely right: It is not a dystopian book. And if the double-twist that I’m pretty sure most readers will see coming is any indication, we’ll see at least one sequel to this non-dystopian story. Let’s hope the next one can live up to the other 5/6ths of the quote.

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7 thoughts on “[ Book Review ] There’s a Dead Canary in the Coal Mine

  1. The “non-dystopian” was my first guess… and then I thought, maybe, it was the “omg”, as is “omg, how did this get published?”.

    Thanks for reading that one for us.

    I read a book recently that I’d like to say I read so that others might not need to… But, truth is, with every other review on Goodreads being a 5-star, I’d quite like to find out if it was a case of “Is it just me?”.

      • “Archangel” by Michael Vorhis… it’s a self-published ebook. I actually wasn’t going to rate it on Goodreads. As a writer, I know how difficult it can be to receive negative feedback (although, constructive is always good). But, when I saw all those 5 star ratings (putting the book above Harry Potter and LOTR, to name just two) it just didn’t seem honest to me, so I put in my two-cents… and then the author demanded I explain myself…

        Tempting to rubbish self-publishing, but I’m not keen to just in case I have to go down that road, myself. I’m still willing to give self-publishers the benefit of the doubt, going by how difficult it seems to get past the slush-pile stage…

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