Tag Archives: dystopian YA novels

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Maze Runner’ Trilogy

This past weekend, I did a lot of reading. I received a gift of four spanking new paperbacks in the post from the lovely Lorrie, and she challenged me to read them. They weren’t, let’s say, to her taste, and she was interested to see what I thought of them.

Well. The weird thing is, I completely understand (and agree with) all the problematic issues surrounding these books, as Lorrie herself so ably pointed out – I don’t think I’ve ever rolled my eyes quite so much while reading any series of books before, including Twilight (and that’s saying something.) However, the fact remains that I read them all. Start to finish. So, there’s that.

The books form ‘The Maze Runner’ trilogy – The Maze Runner, The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure.

Image: artofwaffling.wordpress.com

Image: artofwaffling.wordpress.com

The Maze Runner, the first book in the trilogy, has won, or been nominated for, a lot of prestigious awards; it has been made into a movie, soon to be released. It has gathered a bunch of gushing review on Goodreads and has become a bestseller. It’s a big, blokey gutbuster of a novel, a story about boys left to fend for themselves, fighting against (apparently) horrendous odds to figure out a way to survive in a cruel, inexplicable world. The second novel picks up where the first leaves off, almost to the second; our heroes are flung into a burning world, expected to trek through a desert landscape filled with enemies in order to reach a promised ‘safe haven’. The third brings us into the ‘real world’, a world ravaged by environmental change and disease, where the heroes (or, those who are left, at least) learn that trust can be betrayed and that those who think they’re acting ‘for the greater good’ are sometimes the most evil of all.

I should have loved every word. Sadly, the words were the main problem I had with these books.

Let me start by saying this: the basic idea behind the trilogy is solid enough, in general terms. It’s a typical ‘something dreadful happens in the world, so the government – naturally – starts human experiments on kids in order to try to solve the problem’; I’ve seen this formula before, and while it’s completely illogical and utterly unrealistic, it is compelling. The Maze Runner, book 1, introduces us to most of our major players when Thomas, the ‘hero’, finds himself in the Glade, a strange enclosure full of kids like himself. The Glade is surrounded by high walls which move at sunset to seal the kids in. Outside these walls is a Maze, which the kids are pretty sure they have to solve in order to be allowed to leave – the only problem is, it’s full of creatures called Grievers, which are like giant slugs, complete with razors and spikes and all manner of other weapons. Of course.

The plot of the first book is contrived to the point that I just gave up caring after a while, and just went with the flow. There’s no logic in Thomas (and Teresa – a girl who mysteriously arrives in the Glade the day after Thomas does) working out the secret of the Maze; there’s no logic in the kids (all of whom are supposed to be geniuses) failing to figure out a way to fight the Grievers until Thomas arrives. They’ve been seeking a way to fight them for two years, when all they needed to give it a go was there, in the Glade, for the taking. I had it figured out straight away, and I’m hardly a grizzled survivalist. There’s no logic whatsoever in the ending. The book is full of telling instead of showing – and, worse still, telling and showing – and there are so many examples of pointless conversations, all needlessly saying the same thing, that I can’t even list them all here. There’s very little characterisation – you could swap any of the boys for any of the others, and nobody would even notice – and Thomas’ actions and reactions are so unnatural and mechanical that I began to wonder if he was a cyborg instead of a human being. I hated the ‘role’ that Teresa, the only girl, is given; she’s basically a placeholder, or a plot device. This annoyed me.

The second and third books also display these flaws. The ‘telling and showing’ thing made me grit my teeth over and over; the characters reminded me of Thunderbird puppets every time they had to have an emotional reaction to something. The plot was filled with coincidences and ‘dei ex machinae’, or whatever the plural of ‘deus ex machina’ is, and this all irritated me. In The Scorch Trials, for instance,characters show up out of the blue just to tell the kids something important, or give them a ‘clue’, not once but repeatedly. Then, they vanish and never appear again. That was almost too much for me.

But – for some strange reason – I didn’t give up reading.

The second and third books also up the ante with regard to the death-rate; teenagers die, in a variety of gruesome ways, all over the place. However, the strange thing is the reader isn’t really encouraged to care overmuch about these deaths. They’re narrated in a rather detached way. The deaths in The Hunger Games, for instance, to which this series is endlessly compared, affected me far more than the deaths here. Loads is left unexplained at the end of the series, too – not in a ‘work it out yourself’ way, or a ‘life goes on’ way, but just in an ‘infuriating loose ends not tied up’ way, and – as I mentioned already – the whole reason behind the torments the teenagers have been put through is ridiculous.

But I still read it all.

I can’t really explain why I kept going. It wasn’t for love of the characters (except maybe for Minho, who I enjoyed reading – he seemed to have more personality than the others, but that’s not saying a lot); it certainly wasn’t for love of the books’ use of language and imagery (at one point, lightning is described as being ‘like huge bars of light’). I think it was curiosity, and a need to find out whether the book would end the way I thought it would (it did, pretty much) that kept me from giving up. The story is action-packed, and despite all the waffling it does move along at a pretty fast clip, particularly in book three. The first book is poorly paced, I think (too slow for the first two-thirds, and then far too much plot is crammed into the final third), but the other books improve on this a little. Some of the things I didn’t like about book one, including the treatment of female characters, did improve as the series progressed (though not much), and the events of the last book are satisfyingly twisty and unpredictable, though sometimes I wondered if plot twists were being shoehorned in just for effect.

The Maze Runner and its sequels have been extremely successful, and – of course – that’s fantastic. Anything that encourages vast amounts of people to read and immerse themselves in a fictional world is brilliant, as far as I’m concerned. It does worry me a little that the flaws, as I see them, in these books have been swallowed wholesale by their devoted audience, but I hope that the enjoyment the story has clearly brought to so many will encourage them to keep reading.

The series is billed as an essential read for anyone who loved The Hunger Games, but I feel the latter series is far superior. I also think that Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy is better than Maze Runner, in almost every way, and should appeal equally well to teenage boys. Having said that, The Maze Runner is an action-packed, gory and muscle-bound read, and if you don’t care too much about the niceties of language and characterisation it should suit you very well.

Has anyone else tried this series? Am I on the right or wrong track with my thoughts?

The Gladers standing in one of the Doors, which closes at night to protect them from the Grievers. Image: cinemablend.com

The Gladers standing in one of the Doors, which closes at night to protect them from the Grievers – still from the upcoming movie of ‘The Maze Runner’ (Twentieth Century Fox)
Image: cinemablend.com


Book Review Saturday – ‘Divergent’

Sometimes, I’m a little ‘behind the herd’ when it comes to blockbusters. This book has been out now for a couple of years, and the movie version is being released early in 2014. The final book in the series (of which ‘Divergent’ is the first instalment) was released in October (I am currently reading it); my beloved husband decided to buy me the entire trilogy for a birthday gift (which means I shouldn’t even be reading them yet – but that’s irrelevant, surely.) It really makes a trilogy work when you have all three books available to read, one after the other – I did the same thing with ‘The Hunger Games’ and I found it to be most satisfactory – and I was really looking forward to finally getting stuck into the phenomenon that is Veronica Roth, and her dystopian novels that have set the YA world on fire.

Image: musingsofanoverlord.wordpress.com

Image: musingsofanoverlord.wordpress.com

Now that I’m over two-thirds of the way through them, all I can say is – what?

So, there are several things about the book (and this goes for ‘Insurgent’, the second book in the trilogy, too) which are great, namely the fight scenes and the descriptions of physical intensity at times of great stress or fear, and the occasional gem of language beautifully used. However, I have to say that, overall, I was a bit let down by ‘Divergent.’ Perhaps ‘let down’ isn’t the right way to put it; frustrated, maybe. Irritated. Forced to prop up my suspension of disbelief once too often.

In the world of ‘Divergent’, a vision of a future Chicago, people are divided into five factions. We have the Dauntless, who are brave (apparently, though they just seem reckless to me), the Candor (those who cannot tell a lie), the Amity (those for whom life is about love and friendship), the Abnegation (those who prize selflessness above all things) and the Erudite (those who live for knowledge, and the acquisition of knowledge). In a strange version of sumptuary law, the people belonging to these factions each wear different styles of clothing and have unique hairstyles and ways of talking and walking which make it clear whether they are Amity, or Abnegation, or whatever. We are not given any real, concrete explanation for how or why society ended up this way, only that a long-ago war had split humanity so badly that the leaders of the postbellum society decided factions were the way to go in order to ensure peace would reign forevermore. Wars were caused, apparently, by human nature and the tendency for humanity to do evil due to greed, or anger, or cowardice, so somehow – logically (or not?) – dividing people up like this into traits for which they showed a natural inclination, and keeping them all separate, with separate roles in society all of which are meant to be complementary, was seen as a good idea.

Here’s my first problem with ‘Divergent’. This idea – the basic strut upon which the book, and the world, is built, makes no sense to me.

That is completely illogical. Image: freerepublic.com

That is completely illogical.
Image: freerepublic.com

Our heroine is a sixteen-year-old named Beatrice Prior who, along with her brother Caleb (not described as her twin, yet somehow the same age) must face the test that every sixteen year old in the city has to undergo – the aptitude test, which will determine what faction they have a natural inclination toward, followed by a ceremony where they publicly choose a faction. They can stay with the one in which they were raised, or choose another. Beatrice and Caleb have been raised as Abnegation, and Beatrice has never felt like she fits in. Her brother seems too good to be true – perfectly selfless, living his life to serve others, the perfect Abnegation – and so Tris is sure he will choose to spend the rest of his life there, keeping their parents company.

However, Caleb’s choice shocks Beatrice, and her choice shocks everyone.

Then, the book basically takes us through Beatrice’s (or Tris’s, as she renames herself) initiation into her faction. Mostly this focuses on (I hate to say it) repetitive and boring descriptions of simulations which are designed to make her face her fears, pointless training which sounds at once so brutal and so stupid as to be irritating, and her love for Four, one of the trainers in her faction. As the book comes to a conclusion (and, I’m talking, about 400 pages into a 500 page book), we finally start to realise that there’s more to this world than Tris learning how to fire a gun and cope with being almost beaten to death on a regular basis. There is, in fact, a Conspiracy in place – a Conspiracy to bring down the factions.

The end of the book is its strongest point, though Tris does one extremely selfish and stupid thing that I can’t mention here for the sake of spoiling it. However, I am glad to note that the repercussions of this act haunt her throughout book 2.

It’s hard to believe that all this is going on inside one city, and one city only. Having read a little further in the series, I’m now beginning to see that Roth intends to expand on this in subsequent books, and perhaps explain what happened to the rest of the world – but, really, it shouldn’t be something a reader is only coming to in book 3 of a trilogy. This should be clear from the start. There are things in the book like the train that brings the Dauntless around the city – it seems not to run on tracks, because one minute it’s seven storeys up, the next it’s at ground level, and it goes, apparently, wherever the Dauntless want it to go – which irritated me because, frankly, I found them silly. I didn’t like Tris, who seemed unnecessarily cold to her family – particularly considering the sacrifices her parents make for her at the end of this book – and who is definitely courageous, but also hot-headed and impulsive, and I really found her relationship with Four hard to warm to.

The most annoying thing about the book is this, though – the Divergence of the title refers to people whose minds are too complex to fit into one faction alone. Those who have an aptitude for two or more factions are Divergent, and apparently dangerous. Tris, of course, is one of these people. But – if a person can be raised in one faction, and still choose another when they turn sixteen, to which they are then expected to devote their entire life, how is it possible that more people are not Divergent? Why is it such a terribly dangerous thing? This isn’t explored at all.

The book is exciting and different and, at times, well written. It was interesting enough to keep me reading (though, I will admit, I was thinking ‘blah, blah, blah’ as I read, some of the time), and book 2, ‘Insurgent’, is a whole lot better. ‘Divergent’ is a touch repetitive, a little derivative, and built on utter illogic. But it’s worth it, I think, just for ‘Insurgent.’ Let’s hope ‘Allegiant’, the last book, is an improvement on the second. If not, I think I’ll be avoiding YA blockbusters for a while.

A still from the forthcoming movie showing Tris and Four in a training session. Image: hypable.com

A still from the forthcoming movie showing Tris and Four in a training session.
Image: hypable.com

Once More Unto the Book Review – ‘ACID’

How on earth is it Saturday already? *Shakes clock* *peers at it peevishly*

I'm not *this* desperate to slow down time - not yet, anyway! Image: dailymail.co.uk

I’m not *this* desperate to slow down time – not yet, anyway!
Image: dailymail.co.uk

Oh well. In any case, Saturday is the day it appears to be, and so it must be time for this:

The Book Review Post!

Image: nosegraze.com

Image: nosegraze.com

This week, it’s all about fighting The Man, as I’m feeling the love for Emma Pass’ marvellous début novel, ‘ACID’. It’s not exactly a comfortable read, but that – in essence – is what makes it so good. And it is, indeed, so good.

I read ‘ACID’ pretty much in one sitting – no mean feat, considering it’s over 400 pages long – and when I tell you it gripped me from the first sentence, I mean it. ‘ACID’ has one of the most arresting opening chapters of any book I’ve ever read; Pass’ grip over language and character doesn’t relax for one second for the rest of the book, either. I felt like Jenna Strong’s story was dragging me by the nose. I had to find out what happened to her, because her voice was so compelling and urgent. The book is tight, well-written, expertly paced and so very clever – it’s almost too much to believe that it’s Emma Pass’ first published novel. It’s extremely accomplished, and my hat is off to her for that alone.

‘ACID’, set in 2113, is the story of the aforementioned Jenna Strong. At the time of the novel’s opening, Jenna is incarcerated in Mileway Maximum-Security Prison, having, we’re told, murdered her parents at the age of 15. She is (perhaps a tiny bit implausibly, but I instantly forgave it) the only female inmate in this prison; as a result, of course, she is sexually and physically victimised by the male inmates. Or, at least, the male inmates attempt to victimise her – Jenna, easily the most kick-ass heroine I’ve read this side of Katniss Everdeen, does not take their maltreatment lightly, and learns very quickly how to defend herself. After the breath-holding tension of the first few chapters, where we learn all about the prison, Jenna’s past, and her painful present, the story quickens into a rescue mission, mounted by persons unknown, to break Jenna out of Mileway.

The book takes us through Jenna’s new existence outside of prison, her efforts to stay under the radar and away from ACID – the Agency for Crime Investigation and Defence, i.e. the most brutal, merciless, and omnipresent police force you can imagine – and her growing involvement with an underground resistance movement which is dedicated to freeing the population from ACID’s iron grip. In the course of this, she must assume a new identity, start living a different life (including being forced to take a LifePartner with whom she cannot see eye to eye – the breakdown of their clandestine relationship brings her entire existence into danger), and eventually, inevitably, go on the run. This identity-swapping is done in order to try to evade ACID’s terrifying, all-seeing surveillance; later in the book she is forced to assume yet another identity, against her will this time. All these layers are deftly handled, giving Jenna’s character such satisfying texture and complexity.

The story describes daily existence in a country which was once the UK and is now the IRB, a walled-off, segregated totalitarian state. It is a chilling vision. Everything is monitored – ACID knows who you talk to, what you read, what you think, who your friends are – marital unions are state-sanctioned (everyone is assigned a LifePartner in their late teens, and any sign of deviance from this is severely punished), and couples may not become pregnant without a permit from the state. It’s not a new idea that total power brings total corruption, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea – Emma Pass makes such excellent use of the trope that it seems new and fresh in her hands. The gradual uncovering of the truth behind Jenna’s early life, as well as her own origins, gives the story an emotional punch and makes you care deeply about Jenna and the pain she has been forced to suffer.

The secondary characters are also excellent, particularly Max – he’s almost the ‘heart’ to Jenna’s ‘muscle’, which is a refreshing reversal of expectation – and his kindness and compassion show us exactly how hard Jenna has had to become in order to survive. She is, however, hiding a painful secret from him for a large part of the book, and the strain this causes is made very clear. As well as excellent characterisation, another of my favourite features of the novel is the use of reproduced newspaper articles and komm readouts (‘komm’ being a device worn in the ear, and monitored by ACID, which allows you to ‘link’ to other people – almost like a smartphone, but with a heads-up display), which give us another perspective on Jenna’s first-person narration. I enjoyed the disparity which sometimes occurs between the way she views the happenings in her world and what ACID is actually thinking or doing – it’s nicely used to rachet up the tension where necessary. Plus, it looks really cool.

In short, everything about this book is top-notch – the writing, the characters, the narrative voice, the concept, the action sequences, the world-building (which feels sickeningly plausible!), the technology, and the emotional arc our characters travel. I did have two tiny quibbles, one of which I’ve touched on above (Jenna’s being the only woman in the prison), and another which occurs near the end of the book (where Jenna is handed an opportunity to achieve one of her goals, instead of creating her own means of getting what she wanted, which would have been more satisfying to read). However, these quibbles are swept away in the overall force of nature that is ‘ACID’.

Just to note: ‘ACID’ is probably considered a YA novel by publishers and librarians and booksellers, and so on, because Jenna is in her late teens, but I’m sure it would be relished by fans of crime writing, SF and speculative fiction, too. An excellent piece of work, which is heartily recommended.

Happy weekend, all! May the books be with you…