Variants are human beings who, as in X-Men and Heroes, have evolved to have superpowers. Some are stronger than others—our heroine, Tessa, can morph her appearance to match anyone she touches and hold that shape indefinitely, while one of her peers is able to read the minds of other women, but only while holding eye contact—but our government makes a home for them all in a secret branch of the FBI called the Forces with Extraordinary Abilities.

In Impostor, the first in Susanne Winnacker’s Variants series, 16-year-old Tessa has an enormously difficult task: to take the place of a serial killer’s victim in order to bring him (or her!) to justice. Like Kiersten White’s Paranormalcy, Impostor is about a teenage girl raised by the government who longs for a “normal” life, and as in Lisa McMann’s Wake trilogy, Tessa must use her powers to solve a dark, dangerous mystery. While I didn’t gush about either of those books, both were far, far stronger than this one.

My gripes:

Tessa. For someone who’s supposed to be bright and, you know, TRAINED IN MYSTERY-SOLVING, her powers of perception are nonexistent, and she spends far more time stewing, moaning and angsting around feeling guilty about FILL IN THE BLANK than, you know, investigating. She is almost always the actee, rather than the actor, and the first time we see her actually take the initiative to do something, it’s something revolting and untrustworthy and just...wrong: She morphs into the likeness of her crush’s girlfriend with the intent of making out with him*. Likable protagonists are not a dealbreaker—see the amazing Inexcusable for an example of a compelling and complex character study of a completely abhorrent dude—but unless my instincts are totally off, Tessa isn’t supposed to be hard to identify with.

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Alec. He’s Tessa’s super-strong, super-fast crush, but he’s dating someone else. Kate is mean and nasty and Alec clearly doesn’t even like her very much, SO IT MAKES NO SENSE THAT THEY’RE DATING. It’s hard to root for a romantic pairing when the Object of Affection acts like a moron, you know? Also, he has Edward Cullen–itis, in that he’s prone to Protection Through Bossiness, Muttering Tortured Asides and Withholding Information.

The dialogue and narration. It’s inoffensive at best, but ranges from stiff and stilted and oddly formal (“Nice shirt. Pity you don’t have any real breasts to speak of.”) to over-blown soap operatic (“How would you know? Are you about to lie to a family? Are you about to smile at them, laugh with them, all the while pretending to be their dead daughter? Do you have to look into their faces and see the joy of having their daughter back, all the while knowing that it’s all a lie?”). Tessa’s internal narration has the same unimpressive range, but with the added factor of tending to tell, rather than show: Beneath the bitterness, there was a vulnerability that he seldom showed.

Where was Hester Prynne? This last irritant is a spoiler, so skip the following if that’s an issue. Also, it may not be entirely fair, as it refers to something that wasn’t in the book, so skip the following if that’s an issue. As it drove me bananas for almost 275 pages, I feel that I’m entitled to mention it: The killer carves a letter “A” into each victim’s chest. Tessa is posing as Madison, a high school senior who A) was huge into literature, B) was cheating on her boyfriend with C) her English teacher, who D) is one of the main suspects. YET THE SCARLET LETTER NEVER CAME UP. Not even as a red herring. I continue to be perplexed on that front.

In a word: weaksauce.


*If you aren’t feeling the Ick Factor, just reverse the gender roles. See? Gross.

If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.