Title: The Maze Runner
Author: James Dashner
Genre: Young Adult / Science Fiction
Published: October 2009 by Delacorte Press.
James Dashner has gained some acclaim in recent years for his young adult books in The Jimmy Fincher Saga and The 13th Reality series. The Maze Runner is somewhat in the same vein as these earlier books, although perhaps written for a slightly older audience with a darker sense of adventure. It is very much in the spirit of The Hunger Games and other novels in the recent fad for dystopian-future adventures for youngsters. As it happens, TMR is not a shining star of the sub-genre, but it is a fast-moving and angsty book, suitable for the adolescent fan of suffering.
The story begins rather abruptly; one day Thomas wakes up in a rather grubby elevator car with no idea where he came from, where he's going, or anything about himself or his past. The only thing that he can remember is his name. His first name. The elevator just keeps ascending -- whatever is going on, it's going on a long way above wherever Thomas came from. Finally the elevator deposits him in a large open field a few acres in size, surrounded by towering walls -- and containing a sizable colony of teenage boys. The other boys arrived in this place in the same way as Thomas, also with their memories wiped, over the course of the past few years. All that they know is that they were dumped here in the 'Glade', and the only exit, assuming that there is one, lies through a large and deadly maze that changes daily.
Over the next few days Thomas is largely ignored. No one wants to explain what's going on -- in part because they don't really know much, but in part it seems to be out of pure bloody-mindedness. He learns that the boys have been mysteriously dumped in this place, and that dangerous creatures live in the maze; that getting 'stung' by the creatures sends one into a psychotic fever, and that death is common. He learns that the boys are not only brainwashed but are also spied upon by robot drones and intentionally left clueless at every turn. At the same time the people who sent them to this place send them ample supplies every week, and even grant special requests for many luxuries. Thomas is not told what the elder boys have learned or deduced about the maze, or what they've tried to do to escape, or how he can help, and he gets shouted at or ignored every time he asks.
Naturally, it does not take long for Thomas to distinguish himself, and soon he moves up from rank newbie to trainee maze runner. Within a month he is taken into the inner circle and introduced to the secrets of the oldest boys -- not that they know much. He makes enemies, he discovers that he has hidden powers, and he is forced to try to save everybody. I tell you this freely because these things are not spoilers, this is simply the way a book like this Has To Go.
Although the story is a bit predictable, it pulls you in with the hope that this is the intro to something intriguing; it turns out that it's not. The Glade and the Maze are just an interesting world to explore, without any more backstory or explanation than is needed to keep a 13-year-old turning the pages. The other boys are nearly interchangeable in personality, speech, and character development, with the primary distinction between characters being 'Thomas likes/dislikes them' or 'they dislike/like Thomas'. The Glade and Maze come across as a setting from a computer game, designed only for explorability, and the plot reads like a cheap movie.
This is not as bad as it sounds; a lot of science fiction is like this. It is a fun piece of light pap, with an interesting story to explore. If TMR happens to be to be more predictable that most, so what? It's a book for kids who haven't read enough to know better, and they have to start somewhere. If you are 13, this is a good (enough) book. It's still not that bad if you're 30. Strangely, this book is blurbed to be for ages 16+, perhaps because it has a lot of violence, death, suffering, and at least one desperate suicide. I can see why parents and marketers might be concerned, and I would probably not recommend this book to my kids -- although I would recommend other gruesome books, such as the The Hunger Games Trilogy, because while those are horrible, the are also well-written. However, regardless of what I might recommend, I would expect boys from 13 to 16 to be the prime demographic.
This book is the start of the Maze Runner series, and so by the end of the book there is something approaching a reasonable explanation for what is going on. The end clearly sets the course for the sequel, The Scorch Trials, and there will shortly be a third book, The Death Cure. This first book was not sufficiently intriguing to make me want to read the rest of the series, but YMMV. The series promises to be rather wide-ranging and have some interesting twists, and will certainly be exciting.