Did you read VARIANT by Robison Wells? If you answer, "Yes" then by all means read on. If you answer, "No" then STOP. Just stop. Go on Amazon and buy a copy, read it, and then you can come back to browse this review. VARIANT is one of the best YA books of 2011, far superior to the YA fiction behemoth that is THE HUNGER GAMES in my not-so-humble opinion. Now here is the highly anticipated sequel, FEEDBACK. I'm going to try and give away as few spoilers as possible but if you haven't read the first book please check out our review of VARIANT here instead of continuing on.
Here's the Amazon book description (if you find this spoilerish send them your hate mail):
Benson Fisher escaped from Maxfield Academy's deadly rules and brutal gangs. The worst was over. Or so he thought. But now he's trapped on the other side of the wall, in a different kind of prison. A town filled with familiar faces. People from Maxfield who Benson had seen die. Friends he was afraid he had killed. They are all pawns in the school's twisted experiment, held captive and controlled by an unseen force. And while Benson struggles to figure out who, if anyone, can be trusted, he discovers that Maxfield Academy's plans are darker than anything he imagined—and they may be impossible to stop.
VARIANT was like a beautiful thriller conglomeration of THE HUNGER GAMES (the ideas not the execution), LORD OF THE FLIES, and the psychological horror/thriller film CUBE. It was streamlined and focused and creepy and brilliant. Reading it brought to mind the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment, and even bits of ENDER'S GAME. Too much name dropping? Probably, but you'll live. The point is that VARIANT kicked serious butt and because of this my expectations going into FEEDBACK were incredibly high. By now you've probably noticed I do this thing where I build up expectations that can't possibly be met.
FEEDBACK starts off right where VARIANT left off. Benson and Becky have escaped the Academy but are surrounded by miles of forest. They are actively being pursued and have no idea where to go or what to do when they get there. Becky is badly injured. And then Benson discovers that some friends he thought dead are actually very much alive.
The sense of mystery and paranoia that permeated life at Maxfield Academy in VARIANT was the most compelling aspect. Student life at Maxfield was this strange mixture of clashing gangs, constant surveillance, and paintball. Yeah, I said it. Paintball. Benson and Becky have escaped all this and made it to a town inhabited by friends they previously thought lost. So Benson and Becky trade one kind of prison for another. In FEEDBACK there are no bars, no rules, and no gangs. And that is largely where the problem is. This newly introduced town just comes across as a sort of limbo, much like that long and tedious camping section of that last Harry Potter book. There are no gangs but the town is divided into two factions: those dedicated to escaping and those who have resigned themselves to their fate. Unfortunately the faction dynamics aren't explored to a great degree. The psychological themes of VARIANT that I found so absorbing (the banality of evil) are mostly missing in FEEDBACK. There is however one scene that really struck a chord with me, a sort of trial by mob that carries the same dark weight as the first book.
The same could be said of the characters. I was already a fan of Benson. Yes, when this series gets made into a huge blockbuster movie you will likely catch me wearing a "Team Benson" t-shirt. Don't judge. Benson struck me as a great YA character. He's not overly angsty. He's not a vampire/werewolf. He takes charge of his own fate. He's a troublemaker and he wants to be free. He's still great in FEEDBACK but he gets another degree of depth as he tries to cope with the guilt and responsibility that comes with the consequences of the end of VARIANT. The rest of the cast falls a little flat though in the sequel. So many of the characters have returned from the first book that there just isn't enough time spent developing or examining relationships. Returning characters feel vaguely like strangers and new characters feel even more indistinct.
The good news is that readers will gets answers. The ending feels rushed (and a bit contrived) after so long spent hiding in the town but Wells does provide an answer to the big question. Some readers are bound to take the reveal better than others, and I'm sure some already suspect what it may be. Those who took the twist of VARIANT in stride will be fine. Those who didn't probably won't. I'm still considering the implications of the finale.
I'm disappointed and it's not even because FEEDBACK is a bad novel. It's not a bad novel. I recognize the things I love about the first book in it. Benson is a great character and I was very invested in how his story turned out. I love the thriller elements of this setting Wells has created. FEEDBACK needs more. More character development, more exploration of the themes, and more time spent on the conclusion. Additionally, the clarity of writing just wasn't as clear in the sequel as it was in the original. VARIANT proves that Wells has the talent for all of this, FEEDBACK is just lacking. Then again it could just be my expectations tainting things. Regardless, if you haven't read VARIANT and chose to disregard my initial warning GO BUY IT and then you can decide whether or not to read the sequel.
Recommended Age: 14+
Language: Very, very little. Almost none.
Violence: Yes, some...sci-fi violence and some more disturbing violence.
Buy VARIANT here.
Buy FEEDBACK here.