The Maze Runner (2009) is a young adult read that zips along, mostly keeping the reader’s interest. James Dashner’s new novel is relatively suspenseful, but never as gripping as it could be due to weaknesses in detail and character.
The Maze Runner starts off strongly. Thomas is riding upward in a creaky old elevator, seemingly forever. Details have been wiped from Tomas’ memory, so he has no idea of where he’s coming from or where he’s heading. In fact, he has no idea who he is save for his name. When he arrives, it’s in a place known as “The Glade,” a relatively large open area bounded by towering stonewalls and populated by a group of boys, all of whom arrived as he did and with their memories wiped as well. Beyond the stone walls lies a huge maze whose walls move every night and whose corridors are overrun with “Grievers” — deadly life-machine hybrids that either kill you or “sting” you, forcing what’s known as “The Change.” The Change seems to bring back some memories from before life in The Glade, but it drives some nearly insane. Thomas’ arrival sparks drastic and possibly deadly changes in the Glade, driving the boys to an even more urgent need to solve the maze’s mysteries.
Dashner does a solid job of keeping the reader guessing, mostly through Thomas’ frustrated attempts to get answers, which few of the boys are willing to give. But after a while the boys’ refusal to give the “Greenie” any sense of what’s going on becomes a bit annoying and hard to believe. Thomas’ anger and frustration are well conveyed, as is the desire of Chuck, a younger boy and the previous “Greenie,” to find a place in this odd society. Chuck’s looking for a friend as well. Beyond Thomas and Chuck, the characterization is pretty thin.
The plot has a few holes but is otherwise solid, and while its fast pace is sometimes the book’s greatest strength, it’s also its greatest flaw. Because too much happens too fast, the reader is robbed of a lot of the clear potential for suspense, tension, meaningful conflict or emotion. The end is especially abrupt. The somewhat abstract nature of the Grievers, despite the detailed description we get that they neither feel like a full or real menace nor a driven or intentional one, also robs the book of its tension.
The novel ends with a resolution while also pointing the way toward the next book. If you’re looking for a fast read with a smattering of suspenseful moments or action, and if you don’t care much that the characters are a bit flat or that the plot has some nagging holes, then you’ll probably enjoy The Maze Runner. However, those looking for more depth of character or a more fully realized plot and setting should look elsewhere, such as The Hunger Games. Maze Runner shares some elements with The Hunger Games, but is a much paler, weaker echo of it. Unlike The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner is one of those young adult books that really is for young adults, and probably younger male young adults.
The Maze Runner isn’t bad for dystopian YA fiction. That’s kind of damning it with faint praise, but I just can’t summon up a whole lot of enthusiasm for it. It was reasonably well-written and had an promising setting, but I found it a frustrating read on SO many levels:
1. Other kids keep telling the main character not to ask questions, so, so often. It was incredibly annoying and — here’s the capper — it turns out there’s no real reason for that. Other than hiding the Big Mystery Ball from the reader a little while longer.
2. Gary Stu. ‘Nuff said.
3. Lots of teenage boys die, and the reason just isn’t compelling enough to justify it.
4. This is the first book in a series and way too many questions were left unanswered. I’m just not sure I care about the answers enough to read the sequels. Certainly not enough to buy them. Maybe I’d read them if someone put them in front of my face, but I’m not even sure about that.
The Maze Runner is one of those novels that suffers a little for having a great premise. A bunch of teenagers are trapped in an elaborate death maze that apparently floats in the sky. Every month a new member is sent to join their ranks, but none of them can remember where they came from or why they’re in the maze. See, that’s a great hook. It immediately gets the reader guessing and wondering, and opens up lots of fascinating possibilities. So many possibilities, in fact, that the novel ends up leaving a nagging impression of unrealized potential. That’s perhaps a bit unjust, as Mr. Dashner is a good YA author and the book more or less works, but it’s just hard to avoid imagining all of the could-have-beens that we didn’t get.
What we did get is a perfectly serviceable teen romp. The action scenes are fun, the characters are distinctive, and the pacing is good. Dashner’s descriptions of the maze and its creepy denizens manage to convey a surprising amount of dread. And like I said above, it really is a cool premise, sci-fi at that engaging Twilight Zone place between metaphysical uncertainty and human warmth. Its dystopian premise is reminiscent of The Hunger Games or Divergent (if I were constructing a tier list, I’d put The Maze Runner below the former but above the latter, at least in terms of smarts and prose) but still feels distinctly its own thing.
I have two issues to discuss, and the first is that beyond its killer premise, the book doesn’t feel very ambitious. There’s an overarching mystery, but rather than developing it, Dashner falls back on contrivances like the characters being unwilling to discuss the problem (even when it’s to their mutual benefit). In a similar way, the promising-sounding Lord of the Flies setting falls a bit flat, as the group of teenage boys in an elaborate death trap have worked out a surprisingly disciplined and egalitarian society in which the motivation of our only real villain is that he hates the hero for arbitrary reasons.
That brings us to our second issue. Even in a genre where Special Snowflake protagonists are as ubiquitous as lantern jaws in superhero comics, our main character is a bit much. His name’s Thomas, and within days of arriving, he has the respect of pretty much everybody except the aforementioned villain. The other boys all agree that he’s special or set apart, and while he is, there was no way they could have known that. Matters come to a head during a trial scene about halfway through the book where the author’s love for his creation apparently gets the better of him and various characters totally ignore realism to start fanboying out over Thomas, all but swooning in the grip of protagonist worship.
This may seem damning, but I will say that Thomas isn’t actually as badly characterized as most Gary Stu types — he has his moments of weakness and his flaws, and on the whole he’s a fine protagonist. It’s just that he’s the only person in The Maze Runner who doesn’t seem to be aware that he’s the main character. At one point, the cast freaks out when a girl arrives instead of another boy (said girl promptly and conveniently drops into a coma), which breaks both the gender mold and the schedule of arrivals (the girl commits a dystopian faux pas by arriving 24 hours after Thomas rather than the 30 days that was evidently customary). Now, I was with Dashner so far as some of the boys asking if the two recent arrivals were connected somehow, but when Thomas repeatedly denies knowing Sleeping Beauty and largely avoids her in the days following, it seems bizarre when the others ignore his behavior and decide that he has a secret connection with the newcomer. It basically runs like this:
“Oh my, a girl!” cried Newt. “With lady parts!”
“Thomas knows her!” boomed Alby. “He has to, because they arrived chronologically close together. Also, I mean… he’s Thomas. Come on.”
“No,” said Thomas. “I don’t know her. You’re mistaken.”
“Sounds like she’s his secret girlfriend,” said Newt.
Alby nodded. “Makes sense. Look here, greenie. You’d best tell us what we want to know, got that? So… is she a good kisser?”
“What?” said Thomas. “How would I know? I’ve never seen her before in my life!”
“All right, Tommy, all right,” said Newt. “We believe you. Just tell us one thing.”
“When you say you ‘don’t know who she is,’ does that mean you two are definitely broken up, or just kind of separated for a while?”
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Thomas cried. “I tell you I do not know this woman!”
At that moment, the cock crowed, and there was a lot of confused biblical symbolism because everyone had been pretty sure that Thomas was Jesus.
But all right, I’ve poked fun at The Maze Runner long enough. I admit that I found a lot of the inter-character material unlikely and the plot a bit underwhelming, but all the same the writing was solid and the premise strong. There were even some memorable characters, and I ended the book interested in what happened next, despite the occasional irritant along the road to get there. I can’t say that the novel was entirely my cup of tea, but I think it would be fun for younger audiences and overall it gets my recommendation (though not without a few reservations).
The Maze Runner — (2009-2016) Young adult. The Kill Order is a prequeul. Publisher: When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his first name. His memory is blank. But he’s not alone. When the lift’s doors open, Thomas finds himself surrounded by kids who welcome him to the Glade — a large, open expanse surrounded by stone walls. Just like Thomas, the Gladers don’t know why or how they got to the Glade. All they know is that every morning the stone doors to the maze that surrounds them have opened. Every night they’ve closed tight. And every 30 days a new boy has been delivered in the lift. Thomas was expected. But the next day, a girl is sent up — the first girl to ever arrive in the Glade. And more surprising yet is the message she delivers. Thomas might be more important than he could ever guess. If only he could unlock the dark secrets buried within his mind.