I purchased The Maze Runner by James Dashner because it is a young adult novel and I wanted to provide a wide range of reading material for my students. The beautiful cover art captured my attention and the dust jacket’s promise of a story full of mysterious characters, a dangerous setting, and an interesting story cinched the deal.
The Maze Runner is a story that centers around one boy’s struggle to survive in the strange, lethal maze he’s been dropped into while simultaneously trying to unlock sealed away memories that hold the key to his identity and, ultimately, the solution to escaping the maze alive. To further complicate matters, he’s not alone.
Tom, the main character of our story, begins his adventure by waking up alone and afraid in a metal box that is steadily rising. Once his upward journey comes to an end, the box is opened and he is in an open glade, surrounded by dozens of other boys, most of who treat him with disdain as the “greenbean” who knows nothing about surviving in the Maze or the society the Gladers have painstakingly created over the years. It’s up to Tom to learn the rules as quickly as possible and solve the maze before time runs out for all of them.
If you don’t want to see any plot spoilers, you should stop reading now. The remainder of this review will take apart what made this book successful as well as point out some problematic areas in the writing.
The Good Stuff
Technically, the dust cover isn’t part of the novel itself, but I have to take a moment to give props to Philip Straub, the creator of the jacket art. The snapshot of the maze that the art provides is beautifully mysterious. Vines cover giant metal walls in a carpet of greens and browns while rusted spikes stand menacingly in the foreground, threatening to slam the door shut on our stolen glimpse of the mysteries the maze offers. The lushness of the cover art mirrors the beautiful description in the book.
Creating a setting that entices a reader’s imagination and is vivid enough to make the world come alive is crucial for any book that relies on the setting to carry part of the story. It’s easy to see Dashner has accomplished this; sentences like “Glimmers of an eerie light shone through the window; it cast a wavering spectrum of colors on Newt’s body and face, as if he stood next to a lighted swimming pool” provide a clear, somewhat poetic image of what Tom is seeing without bogging the writing down with too much description. Despite having to describe a completely new environment for the reader, Dashner manages to keep the pace of the story quick. I wouldn’t have minded longer descriptions, but Dashner is doing what good authors do and keeping his target audience in mind. As an adult reader, I hardly notice the shallow (but beautiful!) description because Dashner immediately gives me something else with which to occupy my mind.
The Gladers have created their own vocabulary. “Klunk,” “shank,” “slopper,” and “shuck” are just a few of the nouns, adjectives, and verbs the boys have come up with to describe their world.The effect of having all of these neologisms thrown at you from the moment the box is first opened is that you are just as bewildered as Tom is when he first meets his new companions. You feel Tom’s confusion, share his anxiety. Dashner very adeptly shows you Tom’s emotions instead of telling you about them.
The linguistic creativity in the novel also serves other purposes. For one, young boys really do come up with epithets for each other. The Gladers are acting and speaking like the youngsters they are, lending an air of believability to the characters. Not only that, but they’re actually cussing at one another and calling each other rather derogatory names without using socially inappropriate terms. Young adults can read this book without their parents getting offended that the characters are calling each other “shit-heads” every other page. The neologisms give the story an air of mystery and novelty that the setting requires, as well as keep the reader engaged in trying to figure out what the words mean.
Dashner hit a home run by introducing these terms into the book. They, combined with the believable characters, rich setting, and fast paced plot, make this book quite enjoyable.
As good as this book is, there are a couple of problem areas that hold it back from being all it can be. For starters, Tom is a hard character to swallow. He is supposedly 16 years old, but frequently acts much older and wiser than his tender years. Granted, he IS an incredibly intelligent child who helped design the maze for the Creators, but I’m not sure that warrants how much more mature than this companions he is. The other Gladers themselves are ALL incredibly intelligent children who have been hand-picked for the maze experiment too. The only other explanation for Tom’s level-headed confidence is the fact that he designed the maze itself. But if you remember, the novel begins with his memories wiped, so they are of no use to him.
The ending of the novel is also problematic as the solution to the maze, along with the identity of the children, and their purpose for existing all come to Tom after he allows himself to be stung by the Grievers and endure the Changing. Logically, there is nothing wrong with the scenario: the Changing is brought about by the poison in a Griever’s sting and gives the person enduring the Changing access to his blocked memories. Emotionally, however, it’s quite jarring for me, the reader, to be faced with all of the answers all at once. It’s too neat, too convenient. Tom’s remembering of everything is too much of a deus ex machina.
The way the maze is actually “solved” strikes me as contrived, also. There is no exit to the maze and, therefore, no solution. It takes Tom to see that the different wall formations spell out a series of words that must be entered into a computer they will find when they jump into an invisible Griever hole. The problem for me is that the entire experiment that puts these children in the maze to begin with stipulates that no child is more important than the others. The experiment itself will weed out the unworthy ones, gather data about the children’s reactions to events, and end with the best suited children surviving the ordeal. Tom, however, is clearly a child the Creators have a vested interest in and without his knowledge of the Griever hole (which is invisible) and the computer (which he placed when he designed the maze), the words the walls spell out are nonsensical and offer the other children NO chance at figuring out the solution by themselves.
All in all…
The Maze Runner has many more good qualities than it has problems. The plot is a little shaky towards the end, but there are no egregious holes that keep it from being plausible, if not believable. The way Dashner ends the book on another cliffhanger is genius as I no sooner put the novel down than began looking online for the sequel.
This novel was successful because I couldn’t wait to snatch up The Scorch Trials. If you haven’t read The Maze Runner, it’s a quick read and enjoyable.
Check out this awesome cover art: