Variant. By Robison Wells. HarperTeen. $17.99.
Eve. By Anna Carey. Harper. $17.99.
Slayers. By C.J. Hill. Feiwel and Friends. $16.99.
Here begin three new teen-oriented series of novels, two science-fictional and one in the fantasy realm, all taking familiar themes and modifying them in a variety of ways, and all well enough written so they will grip young readers – some young readers, anyway – and interest them in the planned followup books. Variant uses the notion of young people without families, isolated from the world, supposedly in an elite location but in reality somewhere sinister – whose reason for being is the underlying mystery of Robison Wells’ story. The protagonist here is Benson Fisher, who receives a scholarship to exclusive Maxfield Academy, goes there with high hopes, and soon finds out that the school is anything but benign. The 74 students – or later, disconcertingly, 72, and still later 68 – are trapped behind a razor-wire fence and constantly observed by video cameras manned by who-knows-whom. It is not long before Benson is telling a fellow student, “‘This place is crazy. It’s a crazy school full of crazy people. …Nothing here makes sense…’” Ah, but it does make sense, frightening sense, as Benson eventually finds out. The students are divided into three groups called Havoc, the Society and the Variants. Benson ends up a Variant; hence the book’s title, which of course also has wider resonance (the school as a variant of the rest of the world, the students as variants of people outside the school, certain students as variants of the others, and so on). Students have come to various forms of accommodation with the school’s oddities and restrictions, its apparent randomness and its prison-like prohibition against anyone leaving (this is, among other things, a nobody-ever-escapes novel). Even the words are twisted here – “detention” is far from benign, for example. As Benson becomes more involved with a student named Jane, his life grows more complicated. He tells her, “‘This is some weird prison – it isn’t a resort,’” but she knows that already. “Jane, of all people, should have realized that the school was a death trap. Every day we stayed was a day closer to detention or worse.” The “or worse” soon turns up, as Benson makes a discovery that turns his world upside-down and has him understandably questioning every single thing that every single student at Maxfield Academy does. In fact, he is, again understandably, questioning just who – or what – the students are. Eventually Benson decides that “we were in the school for a reason, either to be tested or to be trained. I couldn’t guess which because neither really made sense.” But it all does make sense, and a well-paced climax not only shows what is going on but also leaves things wide open for the next book in the series – because why it is going on is not yet explained. Despite some overdone elements of formula and melodrama, Variant will have many teen readers waiting eagerly for the story’s continuation.
If the mantra of Variant is “trust no one,” that of Eve is “nowhere is safe.” This is a post-apocalyptic novel – specifically, a post-plague one. In her first novel for young adults, and the start of a planned trilogy, Anna Carey creates a setting for her protagonist that is in some ways similar to the setting of Variant. Eve, who is 18 – which means she was two years old when the virus killed most people on the planet – is an orphan, living in a heavily guarded school where she is kept, above all, away from boys, whom she has been taught to fear. It is easy to see where the story is going, and that is just where it goes. As in Variant, the school in Eve conceals a frightening secret beneath its protective exterior, and when Eve finds out what is really going on – that is, what really happens to the newly graduated, who had expected to become teachers and artists – she escapes into the wild, determined to find a way to survive on her own. As she flees, she re-encounters a onetime school rival (a device that Carey uses to show just how different school life and non-school life are) and, not surprisingly at all, meets a boy. He is Caleb, and he has figured out how to live, barely, in this world – and he quickly becomes protective of Eve, whose trust he slowly wins. One thing leads to another, the “another” being love (again, there is nothing surprising about the way this plot progresses); but then Eve and Caleb find themselves being hunted, and the desire for love and survival begins to look like a choice of one or the other. Carey paints scenes of devastation more effectively than she builds characters into fully fleshed-out people: “I wondered if there was something inside me that was rotten. …I didn’t want to witness any of it anymore, the boarded-up homes and the tattered red flags hanging from cracked windows, PLAGUE printed across them in black. The children were too young to be motherless. I wished to no longer hear the grayed bones crunching underneath the brush or feel the now inexorable fear that seemed to work its way inside my rib cage, rocking me at my core.” Not at all surprisingly, Eve turns out to be exceptionally important – hence the intense effort to catch her. The book ends with separation – it is, after all, the start of the trilogy – but with the promise of re-connection to come.
The connections in Slayers are of a different sort. This is fantasy, not science fiction, complete with dragons and heroics and miraculous healing and more. But the biggest twist offered by C.J. Hill (a pseudonym) is that dragons are not marvelous, amazing creatures in a world of wonder and drama, as in so many other modern fantasies. These dragons are smart, to be sure, but they are fierce beasts that must be killed by the Slayers – who are teens with great but unrecognized-as-yet dragon-fighting powers. One of those teens is Tori, who is excited about going to Dragon Camp even before she learns that dragons are real. The dire circumstances that Tori and her peers confront involve eggs that the beasts rendered dormant ages ago so the dragons could, in the future, rebuild their ranks, which slayer-knights had effectively destroyed. The knights did not destroy the eggs, whose potential hatching (under the guidance of the evil dragon lord Overdrake) now threatens to revive the dragon race – meaning that Tori and friends have to save the world. Well…OK. In addition to the evil-dragons approach, the juxtaposition here of fantasy elements with 21st-century Earth ones can be intriguing: “She shouldn’t freak herself out about the noise. It wasn’t like [sic] the dragon eggs were buried underneath her cabin. But just in case, Tori got out of bed, felt her way to the dresser, and retrieved her iPod. She put it on the most soothing playlist she had, then went back to bed.” The story from Tori’s perspective alternates with elements told by Jesse, who becomes Tori’s fellow Slayer and with whom she predictably falls in love. There is actually a lot of predictability here, most often in the dialogue, as when Overdrake says, in typical boasting-villain fashion: “‘I could call the dragon over here to tear you to pieces. …The only reason I haven’t done it already I that I like you. Don’t make change my mind about that. …You can’t win. …Not here. Not later. There are nine of you. I have a small army of men to fight for me. Your deaths tonight will be nothing.’” The book is at its best when violating genre conventions – shortly after his tirade, for example, Overdrake is commenting that Americans are “the laziest, most self-serving people on earth,” and he takes a bit of petty revenge on Tori by making her listen to the Bee Gees singing “Staying Alive” (but via CD, which seems a bit primitive here). Slayers proves an odd but intermittently entertaining mixture of dragon lore, teen romance and sarcasm – not always a winning combination (the disparate elements do not hold together all that well), but a sufficiently offbeat one to grab some readers and take them along for the ride to the next book in the series.