Thomas wakes up in a dark room and can’t remember anything from his past except his name. The room is an elevator, slowly rising until doors above him open to the sky and he finds himself in a glade surrounded by teenaged boys, just like him. The glade is surrounded by towering walls and beyond those walls lies the maze, a deadly mystery whose walls change position every night and which is filled with murderous, biomechanical creatures. Each day, some of the boys run out into the maze, mapping its movements and searching for a way out, but they have to be back by sunset so that they’re not trapped in the maze with the creatures when the doors close automatically.
All of the boys in the glade are in the same predicament as Thomas, not knowing who they are or how they got there. They’ve developed a community in the two years that there have been boys in the glade, with a role for each individual (farmer, butcher, cook, doctor, builder, maze runner) so that they can contribute to the group. They get new supplies each week from whoever created the maze, and once a month a new boy emerges from the elevator. It’s a life of routine, with set rules and a pattern, with the ultimate goal being escape. All the while there are questions without answers: who put them in the maze, why don’t they remember anything from their lives before, what is the purpose of the maze, where do the supplies come from, why do people who are stung by the monsters regain some of their memories but refuse to talk about it?
Then one day, shortly after Thomas’s arrival, the elevator arrives ahead of schedule, and inside is a girl. She tells them that she is the last one who will be sent to them, before collapsing into a coma. Her arrival sets off a chain of events that challenge life in the glade and increase the urgency of finding a way out. Thomas struggles to find a place in this new life, while enduring attacks from the other teenagers who are suspicious of him and trying to understand why he feels like he knows the girl from before.
It’s an interesting premise, and The Maze Runner by James Dashner is full of the striking imagery of enormous, vine covered walls, and glowing amorphous creatures. Dashner has taken that feeling of rats in an experiment, added in a dash of Lost and a pinch of Lord of the Flies and has created something that feels unique and interesting. The mysteries drive the narrative, and a desire to discover the reasons behind the maze kept me reading late into the night in hopes of an answer.
Unfortunately, however, the mysteries were the only thing that held my attention. Compared to some of the more popular “young adult” (I hate that term) series out there, The Maze Runner is significantly less engaging. It hurts the book that it’s centered on a character that is just so uninteresting. Thomas has a bit of a heroic streak, but beyond that there is little that sets him apart until the very end of the book, and even then it’s more of an info dump than a character trait. Compared to Harry Potter, Katniss or Tris, I felt no connection to The Maze Runner’s protagonist, which is obviously not something you want from a book like this. Thomas isn’t a bad protagonist, just a bland one.
Also, despite creating an interesting setting and premise, Dashner fills that promise with several things that I found annoying or bothersome. For starters, he’s created a slang for his characters that’s so silly as to be embarrassing and distracting. I understand the desire to have your characters curse runs counter to the accepted “adult content” level of most young adult novels, but surely he could have come up with a better version of “shit” than “klunk”. If I had to read someone calling another character a “klunk-head” one more time I might have quit reading.
One thing in particular that annoyed me was how Thomas (and therefore the reader) was intentionally kept in the dark about his new surroundings for no obvious reason other than drawing things out for the readers. Obviously I don’t want to read a book whose first 50 pages are nothing but exposition, but for the first third of the book whenever Thomas asks a question, even the most reasonable and simple of questions, he’s just told to shut up. I could understand this if there was some sort of action that made conversation difficult, but there’s no reason to keep Thomas in the dark other than to keep the reader in the dark, which comes across as shoddy storytelling.
Other annoyances included the maze monsters, called Grievers, which sound interesting as described but upon further though begin to seem more and more illogical. The threat they pose to our characters is still very real, but after the first few encounters I found myself questioning how these creatures could move the way it’s described given their physical characteristics. Also bothersome was the book’s ending, which answers some questions but not in a particularly satisfactory way, presumably leaving the big reveals for the book’s sequels (The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure). I don’t have necessarily have a problem with this, especially as the book gets much more interesting near the end, but everything happens so suddenly that it doesn’t feel like there’s any resolution to the story we’re reading.
The Maze Runner is full of potential, with an exciting setup and hints about the larger world to be seen in the next books, but the execution felt lacking to me. I honestly might not have read the book if I didn’t know that a film version is due out next year (which is also what lead me to read The Hunger Games and Divergent), but after finishing Dashner’s book I feel like I would have been better off just seeing the film, which can capture the broad strokes of the book while doing away with some of its more annoying aspects. I’m curious what happens in the next books, because I want answers to the questions posed by the maze, but I don’t have a desire to keep reading like I did after other comparable books. It’s a shame that an original idea like this one couldn’t be pulled off in a fashion worthy of it, but perhaps the film can it justice in a way that escaped the book.