I just love me some post-apocalyptic angsty emo teen thrillers! No, really. I do. I’ve seen The Day After Tomorrow like, twenty times.
The action in this book started off slowly, like a freight train, then sped up about halfway through, and kept a breakneck pace to the end. The postscript was meant as some sort of grand reveal / shock-and-grab you into the next book, but I wasn’t very surprised by it.
The “let the children save us from the awful world we created” trope in the sci-fi literature was established, and perhaps perfected, in Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. There’s something like that going on here, but we as readers won’t know until the characters know, because it is written from the main character’s perspective.
All the characters’ memories have been wiped before they enter the world of the Glade/ Maze. (The Glade is the living and farming area, and it is surrounded by the Maze.) The characters, however, remember their names, and words for objects and events in their world. They have nuanced reactions to experiences they’ve had, but they don’t remember their parents, or anything about their world before they got to the Glade. Science is amazing, but I doubt that even precision brain surgery could alter / erase memories that thoroughly. Victims of strokes, for example, can have swaths of memories erased, as well as difficulty remembering words or experiences they’ve had, and they may never recover. But they remember their name, or the house that they grew up in, or their children’s names, or how to walk, or what have you. It creates an interesting problem for the author: how will the boys react to various stimuli, not knowing their pasts?
Thomas, the main character, learns about the Glade through lots of exposition, but Dashner introduces the characters and the world in a way that feels organic. The main problem is that the established routine of the Glade / Maze is changing, and no one knows why.
One of the ways that the characters discover new information about their world and the people who put them on it is clunky, unreliable and slow. Apparently, they have to get bitten by the cyborg-terror-amphibian-thing in the Maze, and then receive some kind of antivenom which gives them hallucinations, which are then treated as memories. It is a rite of passage that not all survive.
My main complaint about teen characters, as they appear in books, is that they are well-imagined, strong people who have maturity and problem-solving skills way beyond their age group. I’m not sure that is the case here: there is some angry, alpha-teen-male posturing, and some chest-pounding and the like. There is also some pretty nuanced self-government and problem solving going on. Thomas reacts completely differently than the others, even from the beginning. I think that is partly because of his “memory programming,” for lack of a better phrase, and partly because of his particular strengths as a person. Perhaps the others already present when Thomas arrives are more entrenched in “the rules,” or too busy doing subsistence farming to survive. Thomas shows initiative to save another boy’s life and live through the night in the maze.
The character arcs are, unfortunately, pretty flat. One kid stands out: the annoying kid, the faithful sidekick, the younger one who shows some vulnerability, humanity, and depth to his character. (He’s totally the “sucks to your assmar” kid from Lord of The Flies.) So you know he’s not going to live through the book, right? The one good thing about the characters is that they are not all white: there is some effort by the author to prove that there is a diversity of characters, which makes it seem like it could be a post-apocalyptic America.
Despite the lack of surprises, this is a pretty good book. There are a few interesting twists and turns, and a few characters who are complex. I’d recommend it because the premise / world seems promising, but if the second book is mediocre, I’ll pass on the rest.