Okay, so first to...
This was a real page-turner of a thriller. Yes, it is marketed as a "YA" book, but really those kind of distinctions are the product of marketing companies and booksellers (who need to know what shelf to put different books on). I appreciate the need for genre distinctions, and I appreciate that they help me zero in on the kinds of books I'm looking for from time to time, but I do also feel that they limit us from accepting books that might tickle our fancy if they didn't have a genre label that disagreed with us. Variant is a good case in point: yes, it's about a high-school-age kid. Yes, it's from his point of view, yes he's the hero. But really, I don't think this is a YA book so much as a straight-up thriller.
The hero gets a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school, which thrills him for a boatload of reasons. He's an orphan, stuck in the foster care machine with no real hope of a future. So acceptance at this kind of place is a dream come true.
Until he actually gets there. And finds out that, while getting into the school IS just as difficult as the brochures claimed, getting out is even more difficult. Impossible, in fact. No one has ever left the school - at least, not alive. There are no teachers, no support staff, no adults at all. Just students who have a quasi-civilized gang system in place, watched over by the school's "administrators" who are more than capable of punishing from afar.
Our hero's goal is simple: to stay alive. To learn. To escape.
A lot of fun, and a book that kept me turning pages well past my bedtime, with some fun surprises thrown in to boot.
Why only four stars? Well that leads me to...
A story is a specific thing, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The end has to resolve things - at least MOST things. And more and more books, particularly those in the YA section, seem to be simply STOPPING rather than legitimately ENDING. That is to say, they have a larger story, which is broken up into two or three or four or however many books. The first book gets through a large hurdle (in this case, the school escape issue), but never really RESOLVES the larger story - i.e., who was behind it all, and why, and what is the larger purpose, if any. Similar problems can be found in other big hits like James Dashner's THE MAZE RUNNER.
Again, I liked this book - a lot. I liked THE MAZE RUNNER. But when I get to the last page, turn it (or swipe my Kindle) and see only blank nothing, I feel a bit upset. It's meant to be a cliffhanger, but for me it has the opposite effect: if the storyteller can't truly end this part of the story - that is, provide a solid resolution to the major issues at play - then I'm not likely to pick up the other bits of story that come in the guise of "part 2," "part 3," "part Googly-Woogly," etc.
That being said, I'm still giving this one four stars because that's something that bugs ME and won't necessary bug everyone. Further, it did keep me reading, and I did buy everything that happened. I just wished there had been more of an ending to the ending.