Monday, March 1, 2010

Review: The Maze Runner by James Dashner

Found via: B&N Post-Apocalyptic Teen Fiction Panel

I heard about this one back in the day, but put off picking it up. Now that I've read it (and read it fairly quickly), I've been delaying writing my review, because I feel like I have a major bone to pick with the characterization of the lone girl in the story - but I've been having trouble articulating my feelings about her. More on that after the summary:

Thomas enters the Glade in the Box. He doesn't remember where he came from, or even his last name. He knows he is Thomas, and he knows the basics of how the world works, but all of the details of his life have apparently been erased.

He emerges from the Box into the Glade and a group of teenage boys, most of whom don't seem too keen on giving Thomas too many answers on where he is or why he's there. And just when Thomas is supposed to start his grand tour of the Glade, a wrench is thrown into the works.

A girl shows up.

Thomas gets a crash course in the rules of the Glade: two years ago a group of boys was dumped into the Glade, which seems to be in the center of a giant, ever-changing maze. Since that first group, one new boy has joined them on the same day every month. The girl, Theresa, shows up one day after Thomas and is, clearly, the wrong gender. She also comes bearing an ominous message: she is the last teen to be delivered to the Glade. Clearly, everything is about to change.

Thomas is a boy of action - he doesn't like sitting around and obeying the rules of the Glade. The rules are there for a reason, as is explained to him many times: when dozens of nervous and scared boys are forced to live together for years, the rules bring order, and order is the only thing that keeps them sane. The rules include assigned jobs for every boy - and one particularly prestigious, and dangerous, job is that of the runners. The runners are the boys who spend every day running frantically through the Maze, trying to map the corridors and find an exit, even though the walls move every night. The runners have to be fast, because the maze is populated by Grievers - horrifying creatures, part machine and part flesh, that will kill anyone who gets in their way - or at least sting them with a poison that causes the boy to see flashes of terrifying memories of life before the Glade.

After Thomas and Theresa's arrivals, life in the Glade changes quickly. Thomas and Theresa discover they have some sort of connection to each other from Before, and life in the Glad becomes progressively more dangerous until one thing becomes clear: the Gladers need to find that way to escape, or one by one they are all going to die.

Let me get some of the good points out of the way before I launch into my thoughts on Theresa: there are lots of interesting characters in the Glade, and the world is definitely very interesting. There's all sorts of slang in the book, which judging from other reviews has thrown people, but isolated communities are naturally going to create their own slang (two years is more than long enough) and the general meaning of the slang I felt was pretty obvious (it's used in place of traditional curse words. Even if you don't know what "klunker" actually means, context lets you know it's some sort of expletive most of the time).

I was torn between being annoyed with the Gladers a lot, and accepting their portrayals as realistic. Thomas has lots of questions, naturally, upon waking up - and absolutely no one will answer them. This is a recurring theme - if Thomas (and we as the readers) have a question, there's going to be a lot of hesitation and arguing before the answer is given to us. Likewise, every single idea Thomas has is immediately shot down because of course the Gladers have already tried it. It makes the Gladers rather unsympathetic initially. On the other hand, if Thomas really did come in and save the day on his second day in the Glade, I would have questioned the intelligence of the rest of the Gladers that a boy figured out in two days what they couldn't in two years. Generally I think the constant belittling of Thomas just went overboard.

And now. Theresa. I think part of the reason I avoided this book for so long is that I have an aversion to guys-only stories - a habit carried over from middle school and high school when I was protesting the forced-reading of so many stories by and about Dead White Guys so I focused my reading on female-centric stories. I've broadened my reading horizons a lot since then, but I still hesitate before picking up a book that I know features only a token female character. I figured I'd give The Maze Runner a chance finally because I liked The Knife of Never Letting Go so much, and that after all is sold as a story about an entire planet with no women until Viola shows up. But Theresa is no Viola, and Thomas is no Todd. For one thing, Viola is given character development, while Theresa is in a coma or otherwise separated from the action for most of the story, which makes her more of a plot device than an actual character. Despite it being so strange for a girl to show up in the Glade, we don't get to see any actual repercussions from that because Theresa rarely interacts with anyone. I hope her presence is setting something up for the sequel that will explain her importance, but as a character (or even as a plot device) she doesn't work at all in The Maze Runner. Ultimately I was left wondering why Thomas on his own couldn't have served the purpose Theresa ended up doing (aside from future dramatic and romantic possibilities in the sequel. Oh man, was Theresa included just to prove these guys weren't gay? That's a terribly depressing thought - because several guys do go out of their way to mention or ask about how hot Theresa is).

As another contribution to the ever-growing list of YA dystopian fiction, The Maze Runner is a solid attempt. A weird and creepy world was definitely created - and we only get the smallest glimpses of what life may be like outside of the Maze. I'm mildly curious to see where this trilogy goes, but I'll probably wait to hear other people's opinions on it before jumping in myself.

Has anyone else read this one? I looked around for other reviews, but I couldn't find any commentary on Theresa. I would love to know if I'm the only one that has a hangup about her.
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