I may have been a little late getting around to reading this series. But the prequel is set for release in a few weeks, and Fox is working on turning the first book into a film in the near future, so I guess my timing in finishing them actually turns out to be pretty good.

The Maze Runner books were published over a period of about 3 years, beginning in 2009 with The Maze Runner, then The Scorch Trials in 2010, and The Death Cure in 2011.  The series has been favorably compared to The Hunger Games trilogy, which I think is fair, and I bet most adults who liked Collins’s books will enjoy these as well.

The books take place in a near-future, post-apocalyptic (or mid-apocalypse, really) North America.  The world has been torched by solar flares and is nearly uninhabitable in certain regions.  To make matters worse, a highly contagious disease that appeared at the same time as the flares threatens to eradicate the human race.  This disease, called “the Flare,” gradually destroys the brain and turns the victim into a gibbering, homicidal husk (really, this is a somewhat clever way to write zombies into a book without using the word).

The setting is mostly withheld in the first book, which begins with a group of boys mysteriously living on a pastoral, self-sustaining homestead (“the Glade”) surrounded by a giant maze complete with booby-traps and mechanized killing machines.  The boys have all had their memories erased, but they know that they are supposed to (or want to) solve the maze and escape (the most apt become “Maze Runners,” oddly enough).  It is obvious very early on that someone called WICKED (a rather silly acronym) has created the maze to test the boys, but it is unclear to them or the reader why.

The books are told from a limited third person perspective focusing on Thomas, the next-to-last person to arrive in the maze, and our protagonist and titular “maze runner.”   His memory wipe, and subsequent partial restorations thereof, restrict what the reader can know about the outside world.  This proves to be an effective, limiting set-up that drives the reader forward in trying to figure out exactly what is going on . . . this works exceptionally here, and I’ll give it to him, Dashner knows how to write an addictive book/series.

Without trying to summarize all three books in-depth, what follows the initial set-up is an action/adventure-driven plot wherein Thomas and his friends try to escape the maze (Book 1), then are sent on a cross-country quest through a wasteland filled with infected and dying people (called “Cranks:; Book 2), then, finally, arrive into the broader world that is gradually collapsing (Book 3).  Throughout the three book Thomas learns more and more about what is really going on with their”trials” and WICKED, and we get a solid dystopian plot complete with rebellion, an amorphous and powerful antagonist, and shifting loyalties between characters ostensibly on the same side.

It’s difficult for me not to give away too much here, but the books work really well for similar reasons that The Hunger Games do.  First, the protagonist is  likable and capable, but self-questioning and unsure. He is a typical, but atypical, teenager for whom the bigger picture is always just out of reach.  Despite the difference in narrative perspective between the two series, the effect of delayed knowledge acquisition and missteps is similar, and the protagonist’s mistakes in both make them more sympathetic.  Also, Thomas, like Katniss, is pushed into a leadership role he doesn’t seek out or take all that much pleasure in having, and he is forced into situations where he has to do things he would rather not (especially in Book 3).

As I’ve mentioned repeatedly in writing here and elsewhere, one of the things that worked really well in The Hunger Games was the restrained exposition on the setting (ie, no history lesson that reads “In the year XXX, such and such destroyed the earth.  People all over the world did X, Y, and Z.  Then …”).  This is the case with The Maze Runner books as well; gradual reveals of needed info, but no grand overview of the state of the entire world (though the ultimate fate is prett clear at the end here).  The focus stays on the characters and what they know, which drives the story along without major digressions into extensive world-building.

To digress myself for a second, this trait of limited or restrained world-building is often seen in successful YA dystopias.  This is due, in part, to the style almost requiring quick, episodic action–things need to happen or the story will lag.  Maybe it is a cynicism about the target audience that produces this, but I have to say I’m all for it.  Reading YA dystopias is like watching action/adventure movies.  If I want something more sprawling in world-building and political outlining and details, I can read one of many utopian fictions that spend a ton of time doing just that.  Alternately, I could pick up hundreds of excellent “adult” science fiction novels that do this.  Really, the YA tag signals to me that the work will move along quickly and, hopefully, entertainingly (and there will be no sex and few really naughty words).  It’s the same reason I might choose an adventure film over something more meditative and sedentary; there’s no value judgment here on this, just different things one happens to connect with.

Again like The Hunger Games, the books are dystopian on two separate levels.  The primary level of dystopia is the world/region at large (though we learn little about this until Book 3), which is highly restricted due to pandemic and, apparently, resource scarcity.  Beneath this is the dystopia-with-a-dystopia of the maze and trials, experiments that selected individuals are subjected to with specific rules and limitations.  The trials (maze, scorch, and so on) are not unlike the arena in The Hunger Games in function, but they are definitely not derivative.

However, unlike Collins’s books and classic dystopias, the antagonist here is not the centralized state and its complacent populace of privileged elites.  It is, instead, a powerful, private company (agency? corporation?) that is contracted by the world’s governments to solve the problem of infection.  To my mind, this is a welcome variation on a familiar theme.  The nature of WICKED as a quasi-corporate, headhunting employer, along with the memory removal of the subjects, allows for characters we like and care about to have connections to the antagonist, which then leads to more difficult and, um, shocking? revelations.

The last thing I’d say about the trilogy is that it ends quite well in a similarly ambiguous fashion as the Hunger Games.  At the heart of this is the experiences of those subjected to such things, that is, trauma after triumph.  I can’t really say more without revealing too much, but Dashner’s books don’t cop with a silly, happy ending.

There are some problems I had with the books, especially with loose ends that seem to be wanting resolution, characters who should be more developed, and subplots being forgotten or elided.  And some of the jargon (Dashner uses stand-ins like “shuck” for swear words like “fuck” that real teens would use) of the boys can be distracting, but I found it easy enough to adapt after the initial annoyance.  I would likewise acknowledge that there is debt obvious to Orson Scott Card’s Ender books in these (Dashner is, like Card, a Mormon; however, Dashner has not publicly become an asshole like Card has, so no “don’t buy it” at this point).

Overall (and I’m cutting this short because I keep almost giving away too much), the series is one of the most enjoyble and unique YA dystopias I’ve read.  It would still rank lower than The Hunger Games or The Tripods on my overall list of best in the genre, but it is well worth picking up.

  1. owl says:

    Is it wrong that as a tired grad student in the Humanities all I want to do is devour dystopian YA? Really I am trained to answer my own question, aren’t I.

    • nightwork says:

      Sounds familiar. I justify/rationalize actually reading it as being related to my dissertation and research interests. This is sort of true, but I know too well it isn’t my primary motive.

  2. […] I reviewed James Dashner’s Maze Runner trilogy a while back, I praised it for doing several things that I think the best YA dystopias (and quality […]