Friday, June 1, 2012

The Maze Runner

After reading The Hunger Games and enjoying it, I did what a lot of folks did and scoured the internet looking for books of a similar vein.  One that kept coming up was The Maze Runner (2009), the first novel by James Dashner.  I admit to feeling bad about comparing the two novels in the first sentence of my review, but it is almost unavoidable given their plots and intended audience.  To be fair, Dashner wrote The Maze Runner nearly two years before The Hunger Games was published, so the rampant cries that his novel is a blatant attempt to capitalize on the success of THG are misleading.

At any rate, The Maze Runner does fall into the young adult dystopian genre that seems to have saturated the book market in recent years.  The novel has an entirely intriguing premise:  the main character, Thomas, wakes up in a strange glade inhabited by a group of other teenage boys.  Like everyone else in the glade, Thomas has no clue how he got here.  This glade actually lies in the center of an enormous, constantly changing maze seemingly without an exit.  To top it off, every night a bunch of horrible creatures appear, bringing certain death to anyone not in the safety of the glade by sunset.  Thomas is immediately drawn to the maze runners, the boys which daily risk life and limb to venture into the maze in an attempt to map it and reach an exit.  Within days, a girl also arrives in the glade--needless to say this throws everyone into a tizzy because she is the first girl ever to arrive in the glade.  It soon becomes clear that both Thomas and Teresa have a special role to play in the life of the glade.

That's about all I can say without giving away anything, so I'll leave it at that.  While I found the plot to be quite engaging, the novel definitely stumbles when it comes to characterization.  I didn't ever connect with anyone in the novel due to Dashner's rather weak portrayals.  We are endlessly told about Thomas' emotional roller coaster--he is sad, scared, frustrated, confused, angry, but it all comes off as very shallow.  I never "feel" anything that he is experiencing, and every other character is treated similarly.  Given the great promise of the situation for high emotion and tension, this aspect of the writing was fairly disappointing.  So while the plot of The Maze Runner is on par with The Hunger Games, the quality of writing is not.

I think a much more apt comparison is with To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971) by Jose Philip Farmer.  There is the same sense of awakening, wondrous setting, mysterious captors, and society building.  I don't think it is too much of a spoiler to say that there is ultimately the same journey to discover just what the heck is going on.  Again, in terms of writing, Dashner's novel pales in comparison to that of Farmer, but the two novels are quite similar in a general sense.

[some light spoilers here]
The end of the novel was also kind of a bummer.  Dashner's reveal a la Ender's Game was reaching a bit given the truly chaotic nature of the maze environment.  Furthermore, while there is some resolution to the situation at hand, the questions I most cared about were left completely hanging.  Yes, it was written with sequels in mind (like most every other young adult book these days), but dangling some clue as to the circumstances in the larger world would have been nice.

So, to sum up, I did enjoy the The Maze Runner from start to finish.  There is plenty of action and intrigue, and the writing for those parts is certainly up to snuff.  I do think I will read on in the series, but it won't be zooming to the top of my to-be-read pile.

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