“WICKED is good.”
Aside from also being a smashing Broadway musical, WICKED is the name of the main antagonist organization in the Maze Runner trilogy. The acronym stands for World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department, which sounds a lot cooler than the reality actually is.
Sometime in the future, solar flares scorch the Earth and render most of it uninhabitable. At the same time, a virus called the Flare (originally associated with the solar flares, but apparently no actual relation) is “accidentally” released into the world and is spreading like wildfire. In desperation, the world’s governments create an alliance, WICKED, and dedicate all their resources to finding a cure.
You probably think this still sounds pretty darn cool. And yeah, it had the potential to be. But when “let’s find a cure” somehow translates into “we should build a giant maze,” you’re gonna have a bad time.
James Dashner’s Maze Runner trilogy contains three books: The Maze Runner (obviously), The Scorch Trials, and The Death Cure. My box set also contains The Kill Order, which is a prequel I haven’t read yet and isn’t part of the original trilogy so I won’t be including it in this review. Unfortunately, these three books are full of an awful lot of running and unnecessary action that isn’t relevant to the plot — which itself is somewhat lacking.
The story begins in the Glade, a small Lord of the Flies-esque boys’ club in the middle of the massive Maze, which itself is an experiment run by WICKED. A boy named Thomas sends himself in there without his memories and is followed a day later by a girl, Teresa, who says everything is going to change. Thomas soon discovers the Grievers, genetically engineered monsters who roam the maze, and becomes a Runner, one of the boys who runs the maze every day to find a way out.
Eventually the group does find their way out, only to discover that the Maze was merely the first trial. Next is crossing a 100-mile stretch of Central America, which has been ravaged by the flares and boasts oven-hot temperatures and hordes of Flare-stricken people (or Cranks), in two weeks.
During this trial, Thomas discovers that he, along with several of his friends, is immune to the Flare, which is why WICKED has them going through these trials: they’re the key to a cure. When they reach the rendezvous point, they’re picked up by WICKED again and told they will be given their memories back. Thomas doesn’t take so kindly to this as he’s been lied to in the past and fully expects them to tamper with his head some more.
He breaks out of the facility with a few of his friends, joins some kind of rebel group called the Right Arm, breaks back into the WICKED facility to blow it up, almost loses his brain, saves a bunch of other Immunes, succeeds in blowing up the building, and escapes to some kind of paradise where the Immunes can make immune babies and rebuild the human race, which is busy killing itself everywhere else in the world. And… that’s actually it.
Thomas is a strong character who naturally slides into the role of leader about halfway through the trilogy. Previously he was one of the earliest members of WICKED, but that shifted dramatically when he lost his memories. He’s a new Thomas full of guilt and rage and love and curiosity, and he dislikes his old self so much that he rejects his old memories, essentially turning his back on who he once was.
Teresa, on the other hand, feels off. She’s written to be a friend/romantic interest for Thomas, and Dashner did a pretty bad job of it. Teresa is self-righteous and fairly unwilling to understand why Thomas is angry at her after she betrays him, and she expects things to be all hunky-dory after that because “it was just an act.” That’s like saying, “I only treat you badly in front of my friends because otherwise they’ll make fun of me. You get it, right?”
The same goes for Brenda, the other friend/romantic interest (because what YA story is complete without a love triangle, right?). She gets all slutty and affectionate right off the bat, even though she’s technically working for WICKED. But while Thomas is pissy with Teresa for doing basically the same thing, he’s much more willing to let Brenda’s betrayal slide, and there’s no real reason given for it.
Really, both women exist to create additional conflict for Thomas and not to have any merits of their own. The books would’ve been just fine with an all-male cast and no one would have noticed the difference. Seriously, the only reason they’re even there is because it’s heavily hinted at the end that Thomas and Brenda (yeah, Teresa gets squashed by rubble during the whole “trashing the camp” scene) are going to breed some little Immunes of their own.
That’s part of what I don’t understand. The series would have been much improved by removing the female characters, which is something I have never said before and will probably never say again. I really enjoyed the sheer brutality of these boys living and surviving together, and it would’ve been nonstop action without any ladies batting their doe eyes because that is legitimately what Teresa and Brenda exist to do.
I loved the male characters. Newt met a beautifully tragic end, as did little Chuck, even though — or perhaps because — they were the purest characters. Gally was twisted by past memories and present remorse. Minho was a badass who kicked a problem until it stopped being a problem. Heck, even stupid Jorge with all his “hermano”s wasn’t so bad. They all had great chemistry together and played off each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
No, casting wasn’t the issue here. I think you’ve deduced by now that I’m a little disappointed in this series, but it wasn’t the people living in it. My dissatisfaction can be narrowed down to two intertwined issues: story and craft.
Let’s talk story. The whole time I was reading, I didn’t realize that The Kill Order was a prequel. I thought it was the fourth and final book in the series. And the way the books were paced, that felt really right to me. So it was an incredible shock when I was about 30 pages from the end of The Death Cure and realized, “Holy crap, he’s actually gonna end it here.” For once, a series would have benefited from one more book.
It felt like Dashner panicked once he got to a certain point in book 3 — most likely the part when Thomas was informed that WICKED wanted his brain — when he realized, “Crap, I didn’t plan far enough ahead. But it has to end here, so let’s just wrap it up as quickly as humanly possible with the first solution that springs to my head.”
That’s why Chancellor Ava Paige, who has never even appeared until now except on posters and in end-of-book memos to tell us what’s up with WICKED, suddenly shows up as a deus ex machina to get Thomas out of the facility before it blows up. By this point she’s given up on the cure, so she sends the Immunes through a backdoor portal where they’ll be safe from human interference and can make some babies.
So that’s one of the big things that makes me crazy. Yeah, I can buy a certain level of “random lady showing up to save Thomas’s brain just when he needs it.” But after all this buildup to WICKED finding a cure, the trials, building a killzone (brain) blueprint to see what makes Immunes different… it’s an enormous letdown for everyone to just give up and say, “Welp, humanity had a good run. Let’s start over.”
WICKED is supposedly evil because they’ve dedicated the world’s resources to finding a cure instead of making life easier for those who don’t already have the virus. Seems to me that since this is a fairly deadly and fast-acting airborne virus, everyone’s gonna get it at some point. Doesn’t it make more sense to spend your efforts on finding a cure rather than pursuing stopgap measures?
And really, that’s fairly selfish of Thomas to decide, “No, I like my brain where it is. Everyone else can die. I don’t care.” With that decisions, he sentences billions of people to rapidly spiralling insanity, violence, and death. His death could have saved all of them, but because we’re supposed to root for Thomas, we’re supposed to be overjoyed that he survived and not at all upset that friggin’ everybody dies.
That’s my other big thing here: craft. A lot of this writing seems to have been done without adequate planning. That much is clear in the three-book issue, as well as the “forget everyone is dead because Thomas is alive so that’s good” issue. It’s also pretty clear that Dashner lacks both skill and confidence in said skill, which — in my opinion, anyway — means he has no business being a published writer.
Don’t get me wrong, everyone should absolutely be a writer if they have the skill. But instead of trying to better himself and his writing style, Dashner instead wrote poorly and then had the bad grace to point it out.
For example, at one point Thomas cracks a lame joke and makes sure to mentally note that it’s lame. Thomas noting that it’s lame isn’t a character trait; it’s a big flashing light indicating that you thought the joke might fall flat, so you deliberately pointed out that you meant it to be lame, just in case there could be any confusion. Leave that up to the reader; they probably would’ve just thought that Thomas is the type of character to make dumb jokes, which would round out his character instead of making you look like a novice.
There’s also the issue of the psychic connection between Thomas and Teresa, which turns out to be a psychic network that other people can tap into. The only reason it’s used is to reveal things that are about to happen. We don’t need to know that Teresa is about to betray Thomas. We already knew it was coming at some point when you literally tattooed your characters with “this thing is going to happen to them.” So how about instead of warning us about things that are about to happen, Mr. Dashner, you just let the things happen so we’re surprised?
Finally — and perhaps my biggest grievance — is that the epilogue of The Death Cure reveals the true origin of the Flare: WICKED released it as a form of population control when the solar flares hit. No explanation of why. And don’t tell me “there’s not enough room,” because they made it clear that Canada was just fine, and Manitoba alone has something like five square kilometres per person.
So they wiped out the entire human race for no given reason. Can you understand why I’m peeved there isn’t another book to keep this thing going? Seriously, Dashner, you drag me along for three books with a bunch of action I don’t care about, then drop a bombshell like that and say “sayonara”? That’s not good writing that keeps people wanting more. That’s shoddy workmanship.
Those are my thoughts on the Maze Runner series. You can check it out if you want, especially as the first movie just came out, or you could do yourself a favour and go watch Hunger Games instead. You’ll get all the post-apocalyptic dystopia you’re looking for without banging your head against the wall in frustration — at least till the fourth movie comes out.
Final Grade: C-
- For the longest time I thought this book was written by Lois Lowry. Not sure that’s relevant, but thought you might enjoy laughing at my sheer lack of common knowledge.
- Their swear words are incredibly strange. Like, I get that you’re trying to avoid saying the f-word, but “shuck” is not an acceptable substitute, especially when you don’t bother expanding it into verb forms. It’s “use your shucking brain,” not “shuck brain.” Get it together. (And I still have no idea what the crap “slint” is supposed to mean, but it sounds vaguely racist.)
- The really frustrating thing is that stuff like this gets published, but other amazing writers struggle to find someone to print their work, even though it’s dramatically better. There’s no justice in the world; frankly, it’s just plain wicked. That is all.