Variant, by Robison Wells (HarperTeen, YA, October, 2011) is a lovely example of dystopia writ small, all the more intense for the claustrophobia of its nightmarish setting.
Imagine an isolated boarding school. One where there are no teachers, where directives are issued electronically. One where breaking the rules means that you might disappear. One that where something is very, very wrong, and very scary.
This is the school where a foster kid named Benson is deposited one day, after winning a scholarship that he hopes will give him a chance at a new life. It is not the school he had had in mind.
The students have organized themselves into factions--those who are cooperating with a grim, self-righteous intensity (a gang of crisply dressed, stiff backed self-righteous rule under-liners), those who favor anarchy whenever possible (featuring self-drawn tattoos and as much bad ass attitude as circumstances allow), and the Variants--those who go against the grain, those who most often think of escape.
For Benson, the choice to throw his lot in with the Variants is easy. Escape from this insane school is clearly desirable. Unfortunately, it's also impossible. As the days pass, the depths of its dark wrongness become ever more apparent. Benson gradually discovers answers...but knowledge can be deadly. And there are no loving adults to come and rescue these trapped children...most, like Benson, have no family to care about their fate.
Boy did the plot twist in ways I didn't see coming! Obviously there was some Evil Scheme at work--the students themselves figured they were being tested in some way, for some unknown purposes. But they didn't have a clue what was going on...and neither did I! This one has all the tension of, say, The Maze Runner, but the surreal school setting, at once familiar and cozy, but also horribly wrong, made it all more subtly disturbing. It's a story of teenage orphans in psychological hell, but it's a hell made almost bearable by the rewards and treats bestowed from on high (tasty food, cool clothes, exciting games of combat style paint-ball), and by the friendships formed among the kids.
I devoured it in a fugue state of page-turning, slack-jawed enjoyment, and recommend it with great enthusiasm.
The sequel, Feedback, is coming out on October 2nd...I'm a little worried that now I have answers, and now that the action will be taking place on a a larger canvas, I won't quite enjoy things as much. But Wells did such a good job on this one that I am more than willing to chance it.
Note on age: If a kid is old enough for The Hunger Games, he or she is old enough for this one. I'd happily give it to a twelve year old.