Read this book: The Maze Runner

Short take: The Maze Runner, by James Dashner, is a thrill ride that succeeds despite its lack of heart.

Maze RunnerWhen I was young I devoured the Choose Your Own Adventure books. These books were a plot maze where the reader would make a decision at a crucial plot point, and then be directed to a certain page to continue the story. Some decisions would lead to a dead end — end of story — while others would keep you going. All the books were exciting, plot-driven page turners where character (and character development) was largely irrelevant.

In many ways, The Maze Runner, another entry in the YA dystopian canon, reminds me of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. It’s an action-packed story with characters who might as well be blank.

The story: Thomas wakes up in an elevator, with no firm memories, that takes him to a place populated with tough-talking teenage boys. Thomas soon discovers that he’s trapped, as are all the boys. Every day the walls of their compound open, revealing mazes that the boys attempt to navigate. They’ve failed to find an escape, and are threatened by biomechanical monsters called Grievers that lurk in the maze. Thomas is determined to become a maze runner, convinced he can not only solve the maze, but also recover his lost memories.

First, the good:

–Reading The Maze Runner, the first in a series, is like being at a great amusement park. The book is a constant thrill ride that had me turning pages (flipping through my Kindle) at a lightning pace. Dashner excels at turning up the heat and keeping it going.

–Not only that, but Dashner expertly parcels out hints of what’s really going on. He gives us just enough to pique our interest the whole way through.

And the not-so-good:

–Thomas as a character is not relatable. He doesn’t have much of an inner life, largely because he can’t recall his past. Thomas has guts, but he has no heart. I felt the same about most of the other characters — group leaders Newt and Alby, maze-running expert Minho, and the mysterious lone girl Teresa. The only character who seemed three-dimensional was eager, bumbling Chuck. Dashner subtly showed us how desperate Chuck was for friendship. He did this through Chuck’s dialogue and actions. If only Dashner had done that with Thomas and the rest.

–I didn’t buy Thomas’s fledgling relationship with Teresa. Again, maybe it was the fact that both characters were amnesiacs; there wasn’t much to build on. Was Teresa included only to throw in a romantic subplot? If so, then it felt forced.

–While the story was thrilling, there were times when I wanted Dashner to slow down. There was little reflection. The Maze Runner would have benefited from a break in the action now and then.

But these complaints don’t doom the book — far from it.

The Maze Runner is just one among many YA dystopian novels, a trend which seems to never end. The ones I enjoyed the most — The Hunger Games series and Neal Shusterman’s Unwind — excelled because they focused on character. The Maze Runner shows that sometimes you can get away with relying solely on plot.

Read this book: Unwind

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If you survey the landscape of young adult publishing, it would be easy to assume that the future will be bleak. Take a look at Suzanne Collins’ phenomenal Hunger Games series, or Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy. Well, add another one to the list.

Unwind, by Neal Shusterman, is set in a future America where the abortion battles led to a war, and the negotiated peace is as follows: abortion is illegal, but children can be unwound between the ages of 13 and 18, if their parents or guardians decide. What is unwinding? The body is taken apart, with each part being donated to someone in need (except for a few unusable bits). So, basically, they’re killed but in the name of charity.

With sci-fi/paranormal/supernatural stories, you often cannot look too closely at the logic behind the premise, lest is falls apart. And with Unwind, you have to ignore the fact that a law where abortion is illegal but adolescent children can be “aborted” would only piss off both sides.

So put that aside.

Once you do, what you get is a compelling and emotionally devastating book. It follows Connor, a bit of a wild kid, who discovers that his parents are going to have him unwound. He runs, and in the course of his travels hooks up with an unlikely pair: Risa, an orphan scheduled for unwinding, and Lev, the tenth child of a religious family who has been designated as a tithe (in other words, he will be unwound as well).

Grisly stuff.

I won’t reveal too much of the plot, which is a cracking story that keeps the pages turning. But this book is more than that. Shusterman hits an emotional core with two key scenes that resonated with me long after I put the book down (yes, it was paperback). Connor and company meet CyFy, a teen who’s had part of his brain replaced. The brain matter came from an unwound child, and now CyFy is accessing the “donor’s” memories and emotions. Only the donor has no idea he’s been unwound. Cyfy heads back to the donor’s home, and the scene between CyFy and the parents is gripping and grueling.

Later in the book, Shusterman describes an unwinding through the eyes of a character undergoing the process. Yep, this character is awake during the procedure. All I can say is that I wish I could write like that.

As with much of YA these days, Unwind may be about teens and labeled for teens, but it’s one for all ages.