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The Maze Runner (James Dashner)

(Delacorte, 2010)

Thomas wakes up in a lift with no memory of his life except his name. He is even more perplexed when the lift delivers him to the Glade—a community of about fifty boys like him, all without memories of their past. The Glade is a little “village” that the boys seem to have set up for themselves thanks to regular deliveries of everything they need to survive. They’ve set up kitchens, vegetable gardens, a slaughterhouse, a homestead and even a prison!

Nobody knows why they have been sent here. All they know is that there is only one way out and that is through the Maze, which lies beyond the dizzyingly high stone walls of the Glade. Only, in the two years that most of these boys have been here, no one has actually found the exit, even though Runners scour it from sun-up to sun-down every single day. Of course, their work is made harder by the fact that the walls of the Maze change every night and deadly creatures called Grievers roam the corridors.

But who would put children inside an apparently unsolvable maze, take away their memories but give them everything they need for their survival, except a way out? And why? Is this a sick reality show, a cruel experiment or a place of safety where the children have been sequestered to save them from something worse? Or, wonders Thomas, is it a prison?

Then, twenty-four hours after Thomas arrives, they have a new camp member. Only, this time it is a girl. She comes bearing the message that she is the last one and that everything is now going to change.

All of this adds up to a terrific set-up. Even though the book is slow to start, one is compelled to keep reading to find out what or who are behind this intriguing, ghastly set-up. And even though there are limited possibilities (experiment, reality show, prison and safe haven), the answer might surprise you. The only disappointment is the way one gets there, for there is definitely an element of the deus ex machina about The Maze Runner.

Thomas is a strangely unlikeable protagonist, very hard to identify or emphathize with. This is partly the fault of the writing, because even though the third-person narration is exclusively from his perspective, we never actually get to feel what he’s feeling. His anger and frustration and fear—all these things are told to us, but they are never quite palpable. He comes across as an irritating know-it-all and conveniently remembering bits of his past just in time to drive the story forward isn’t very compelling. Another reason for disliking him is probably that he swaggers in with a giant saviour complex—and it doesn’t help that he does, in fact, turn out to be the hero they were waiting for all along.

The other serious downside of the book is that it thrives on building suspense by withholding information and that gets annoying after a while. There appears to be no compelling reason that the other Gladers refuse to tell Thomas anything when he arrives. In fact, it is quite counterintuitive—if the Maze is as dangerous as everyone implies, it would make best sense to let him know why as soon as possible. The Grievers, who sound like Edward Scissorhands meets a cow-sized bag of goo, are also rather flat—sorry about the pun. Again, that sense of imminent danger is oddly missing, even when they’re rolling up into the camp, looking for their next victim.

Teresa’s (the only girl) role is also not very well defined—we never really get to understand her presence. While she is supposed to have “triggered the Ending” that leads to the catastrophic events that result in the climax, we are never really sure how this comes about. Neither is there any explanation for the “special connection” that she and Thomas have. The relevance of the Changing (the terribly painful period of recovery after being bitten by a Griever) is never quite explained either. In fact, you are left wondering that if the Creators (the people who put them there) are so keen that the boys not remember their previous life, and considering they control more ore less everything, why does the Changing bring their memories back anyway, even if temporarily. This also raises the question why everyone else seems to quickly lose the memories they’ve gained back except Thomas—apart from the fact that is very convenient in driving the story forward.

Overall, the characters lack, hmm, well, character. They’re rather flat and unimaginative. This post-apocalyptic dystopian world is also sadly devoid of diversity—apart from a token Asian character and token black, everyone else seem to be white (American?). This fact is especially troubling when taken in the context—which is revealed in the end—of why this particular bunch of children have been put into the Maze in the first place. It is also sad that the only girl in the story had to be described as being extremely “pretty” and that she conveniently gets to play no role in any of the really physical stuff. There is a passing mention of how she is as tough as the others, but, really, there is no reason for Thomas to come to that conclusion since she doesn’t really do much except be in a coma, hold hands with Thomas, and sit at a table and trace maps.

All of this might seem that The Maze Runner is dire read, but that’s not really true. Oddly enough, it’s quite fun. As mentioned earlier, the setting is fantastic and despite the disappointing point-of-view character and information-denial, you are curious about what’s going on and compelled to keep reading. Dashner has also found a way to liberally use swearing in dialogue by creating his own cuss words. This takes some time to get used to, but is believable to the extent that you’d expect a band of lost and abandoned teenagers to talk this way.

This is the first of a three-part series (plus two prequels), so one can also hope that some of the questions raised will have satisfactory answers eventually.

RATING: 7/10