The book of bad habits.
The Maze Runner by James Dashner
When Thomas wakes up in a darkened elevator, he has no memory of who he is or where he comes from. The elevator takes him to a high-walled courtyard, The Glade, full of self-governing adolescent boys who have no memories of their prior lives either. He is informed that a new boy arrives every month. Beyond The Glade is a maze: explored by Runners each day, filled with monsters each night. The day after Thomas’ arrival an unconscious hot girl shows up in the elevator clutching a note informing the boys that she will be the last. What follows is a race against time to solve the maze before resources run out or monsters overrun The Glade.
This book was really hard to finish. The ideas were promising, and I had the feeling that things were just about to get exciting in a few pages…unfortunately I had that feeling all the way through with absolutely no payoff.
Let me state, once and for all, that this book has absolutely nothing in common with Lord of the Flies. Nothing. If you love that book (like I do) and were considering this one because you’ve heard it was in a similar vein, you’ve been bamboozled. Lord of the Flies has depth, sociological commentary, and psychological suspense. The Maze Runner doesn’t.
What it does have are many, many poor choices that rob the narrative of any excitement or suspense. I am afraid of writing a book like this, and I often found myself cringing when Dashner’s novel displayed an unchecked bad habit that I am prone to myself. I am going to list the poor choices for convenience:
1. This should have been a short story. If Dashner wasn’t interested in, or up to the task of, developing his characters as more than two-dimensional personalities; he should have told his tale in a short format to keep the focus on the events. Social dynamics between Gladers are superficial, particularly given how long most of them have been living together in stressful circumstances. Particularly irritating is the way The Gladers refuse to explain anything of what they know about their situation to Thomas. It seems like a pointless attempt to create conflict and suspense, and it is one that fails.
2. Dashner gives away all his suspense and conflict early on. Rather than letting Grievers, the deadly monsters that roam the maze, be a mysterious entity that goes bump in the night until Thomas gets to enter the maze himself; Thomas is shown a Griever through a window on the day he arrives. Teresa, who could brew conflict based on her gender alone, is dropped straight into a coma on arrival and kept off-screen unless it is time for Thomas to interact with her. A very poor choice. The fact that she arrives the very day after Thomas is also a poor choice, because he has yet to learn anything about Glader life. What could have been a huge shock to a settled-in Thomas with a month in the Glade was instead a throwaway moment.
3. Pacing. Holy moly. Dashner and I have something in common with our writing. I have a tendency to slip into a moment-by-moment description of events if I am not being careful. This makes for a bone dry read, and is a terrible disservice to story. I only care what a character ate for lunch if it tells me something about the character. Katniss’ focus on food underscored the general scarcity of it in her daily life, Harriet the Spy’s tomato sandwiches were a quirk of her generally independent personality. Ditto anything else the character does. It only matters to me if it matters to the story. Dashner drags the reader through many dull hours and frustrating conversations, just to get to “wow” moments that fail to thrill because the reader has become so disinterested.
4. The author shows his ass with the character of Teresa. It tells me an awful lot about how an author sees women when he drops a single female character into a story, makes her beautiful, takes away her ability to speak, and earmarks her for the “hero” (and none of the other characters challenge this assumption). It reminded me of Arya in Eragon: she’s there because the hero needs a hot babe to ride into the sunset with, no matter how little sense it actually makes in the context of the story. That is not authentic, that is an emotionally stunted little boy’s fantasy. The way the story is written Thomas basically has “dibs”.
5. Thomas’ self-reflection read like the author describing the character of Thomas to the reader. That doesn’t work in first-person. Awkward. Whenever Thomas had a good character moment: did something brave, devised a clever solution, or worked tirelessly; it was undercut by his previous musings that despite his lack of memory he felt like he was brave/smart/persistent. I tend to think of writing characters like creating a great drawing: if you do a good job rendering the values, bringing out the darks and lights, you don’t need to draw lines.
6. Spiked slugs aren’t scary.
This book was just so frustrating, particularly since I saw some of my own bad writing habits on every page. I wouldn’t really recommend it to anyone, because there are so many good sci-fi/dystopian stories with similar themes that are well-written. I will not be picking up The Scorch Trials.
If you would like to read a book like The Maze Runner, but well-written, check out William Sleator’s House of Stairs. He did it better twenty years ago.