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Chaos, and a Stranger Arrives

Intertwined

By Gena Showalter
Harlequin Teen, 2009

Lips Touch: Three Times

By Laini Taylor, illustrated by Jim Di Bartolo
Scholastic, 2009

The Maze Runner

By James Dashner
Random House, 2009

It’s easy to understand why young adult fantasy has gained traction with adult audiences. At its best, the genre conveys the ordinary awkwardness and self-doubt of adolescence – which many of us have yet to recover from – in richly imaginative worlds far removed from our own. It’s a chance to relive the angst of our formative years, with a little vampirism to sexy things up a bit. Even within the YA fantasy genre, authors find myriad ways to tell the familiar tales of teenage woe, as seen by the new novels by James Dashner, Gena Showalter, and Laini Taylor.

In The Maze Runner, James Dashner has created a thrilling dystopian novel. It opens with a teenage boy in a dark elevator, who knows only that his name is Thomas. He emerges into a world called the Glade, surrounded by teenage boys who also have no memories of their lives before this world. There are no friendly faces, no one to answer Thomas’s many questions, only boys who have become accustomed to the narrow world they’ve lived in, some of them as long as two years.

There’s a lot of set-up early on, which slows the initial pace of the book but is necessary to show just how much of the status quo Thomas will disrupt with his involuntary arrival. We learn that every month for the past two years a boy has been delivered to the Glade, and that the same dark elevator, called the Box, delivers food and supplies from the Creators, the mysterious group responsible for the Glade’s existence. As Thomas tours his new home with the de facto leader, Alby, he learns about the division of labor in the camp. He is most intrigued by the Runners who spend their days navigating a giant maze that lies outside the perimeter of the Glade. They’re searching for a way out, and for answers to the missing parts of their memories. The Runners must return to the Glade by sundown or risk being locked out overnight by huge stone walls that rumble closed to protect the camp.

Lying in wait in the Maze after dark are the Grievers, nasty creatures that are part robot and part gelatinous mess:

It looked like an experiment gone terribly wrong – something from a nightmare. Part animal, part machine, the Griever rolled and clicked along the stone pathway. Its body resembled a gigantic slug, sparsely covered in hair and glistening with slime, grotesquely pulsating in and out as it breathed. It had no distinguishable head or tail, but from end to end it was at least six feet long, four feet thick.

As far as terrifying monsters go, Dashner had me at six-foot long, pulsating, hairy slug. Things get a bit more convoluted, though, as he details the metal spikes, mechanical arms, claws and needles that protrude from the Grievers. That aside, Thomas’s encounter with the Grievers, when he’s forced to survive a night in the Maze, is one of the most intense scenes of the book, an intensity that Dashner maintains throughout the remaining chapters.

Enhancing the mystery of the Glade and the Creators is the arrival of a girl with a message from the Creators: “She’s the last one. Ever.” This deviation from the norm sends the Gladers into a panic, and many of them point to Thomas as the source of change. Thomas feels a connection to the girl, Teresa, but can’t remember why she is familiar. Adding to his confusion is Teresa’s ability to communicate telepathically with him. When the Creators stop sending supplies and trigger the walls to remain open at all times, it becomes clear to Thomas that they must find a way out before the Grievers kill every last one of them. Dashner’s sci-fi thriller is the first in a planned trilogy, so not all of my questions were answered by the last page. However, the author does a great job of tying up enough loose ends while setting up what will surely be an exciting sequel.

Like The Maze Runner, Intertwined by Gena Showalter is the first book of a planned series. It is a sprawling supernatural teen melodrama that reads like the greatest hits of all things otherworldly. It opens with the protagonist, Aden Stone, arguing with the four souls that are trapped in his body. Each of the souls possesses different powers: time travel, clairvoyance, the ability to possess another person’s body, and the ability to raise the dead. Distracted by the voices in his head, Aden meanders into a cemetery and the last of the aforementioned powers are immediately put to use. Showalter offers no explanation as to the purpose of this resurrection power, though the ensuing zombie battle is an exciting start to the novel:

Aden tried to squeeze the creature’s neck but it kept moving, kept pulling from his grip. ‘Be still,’ he commanded as he punched it in the cheek with so much force that what was left of its brains rattled – but that didn’t weaken it. Actually, the action might have strengthened it. Aden had to anchor both of his hands against its jaw to prevent it from swooping in for another bite.

Mixed in with the intensity of the zombie attack, Showalter provides some interesting background about Aden: that he is living on a ranch for troubled teenage boys in Crossroads, Oklahoma and that Elijah, the psychic soul, has seen Aden’s death, an event that will occur in the not-too-distant future. Moments after killing the last of the zombies, Aden encounters a young woman whose presence silences the souls within him. Aden follows the young woman, Mary Ann, to a coffee shop but can’t bring himself to question her while she sits with her friend. While this would be an intriguing enough plot on its own, Showalter significantly complicates things by adding a vampire love interest for Aden, a werewolf paramour for Mary Ann, as well as the standard device of high school football jocks bullying the new kid. On top of these subplots, Aden’s ability to capture souls also summons an array of supernatural types to Crossroads, including witches, fairies, and goblins. Any one of these plot strands, if given the chance to breathe, would’ve made for interesting reading. Instead, the number of supporting characters that crowd the story dilutes the strengths of the novel.

Showalter writes in an engaging style, and the book is at its best when the focus is on Aden and his struggle for balance with the voices in his head. Having spent his life in and out of mental institutions, Aden has come to consider the souls trapped within him as his only family. Though he seeks to find a way for them to be released, the resulting silence will also leave him without his closest friends. Aden’s plight is genuinely moving but gets lost in the shuffle of the competing storylines. By the time Showalter reveals why Mary Ann has the power to silence Aden’s voices, the story has already meandered too far afield establishing their relationships with their vampire and werewolf significant others. This results in a very rushed ending, where Aden once again battles the undead, this time facing his girlfriend’s vampire family. Showalter leaves far too many questions unanswered, resulting in a feeling of needing to read the next book, rather than wanting to.

Lips Touch: Three Times by Laini Taylor is a stunning stand-alone book that doesn’t rely on the promise of future installments to keep the reader captivated. This collection of two short stories and one novella recently received a nomination for the National Book Award’s Young Adult category, and it’s easy to see why. Each piece is centered on the longing and expectation of a first kiss, and the consequences that follow. In these stories, the ramifications are amped up considerably, as goblins, curses, and alternate dimensions wreak havoc on this sweet rite of passage.

Each section opens with haunting illustrations by Jim Di Bartolo, which set the stage for equally evocative stories. The first, “Goblin Fruit,” centers on Kizzy, a high school student who exists on the fringes of society. She has been raised to believe in the existence of the supernatural; ghosts flit in and out of the house that she shares with her large extended family. Their knowledge is rooted in family lore:

They’d have said there was no “believing” involved. They knew, because Kizzy’s grandmother had saved her sister from them once in the Old Country and lived to tell. She’d never tired of telling the story, how the goblins had tried to force her mouth open and cram in their unnatural fruit, how she’d kept her jaw clamped tight against them.

As many times as Kizzy hears the stories of her grandmother’s survival, she nonetheless falls prey to Jack Husk, a mysterious new student at school who only has eyes for her. While most girls would fail to see the goblin warning signs, Kizzy suspects Jack’s true identity but consciously ignores it because of the very normal feelings of desire he brings out in her. This is the strength of the story and the collection as a whole; while otherworldly elements loom and threaten their existence, the protagonists ache for this simple gesture of human connection.

The second and strongest story in the collection, “Spicy Little Curses Such as These,” continues this theme, in this instance placing a demon’s curse as an obstacle to true love. Estella, an elderly woman who negotiates with the demon Vasudev for the lives of children, is forced to place a curse on an infant that will kill anyone who hears her voice. In an effort to thwart Vasudev, Estella uses her own power to ensure that the baby will not speak until she is old enough to understand the curse. Years later, the girl, Anamique falls in love with James, a former soldier who finds her diary on a train. James knows Anamique’s thoughts without her having to utter a word. He attempts to dissuade her of the idea that the curse is real, urging her to speak to him. On his way to her eighteenth birthday party with an engagement ring in his pocket, James encounters Estella and her assistant who plant a seed of doubt in his mind. Their first kiss leads to catastrophe, as James proposes and roughly kisses Anamique to keep her from answering out loud, having come to believe that the curse might be true. Her anger at spending eighteen years confined to silence erupts, and the sound of her singing brings the curse to fruition.

“Hatchling,” the last piece in the collection, crams a novel’s worth of story into a novella. Esme and her mother Mab flee from the mysterious shape shifters known as the Druj, whose Queen once enslaved Mab in an alternate realm. Taylor does an amazing job providing the rich details of the world Mab escaped while pregnant with Esme, and the story itself is compelling. While the writing is as vivid and imaginative as the previous two stories, the number of characters that populate “Hatchling” would have been better served if given the space that a novel would provide. The theme of the first kiss resounds in several different strands of the story, most prominently that between the Queen and Mihai, a Druj who helps Mab escape. The story offers competing views of the Queen; she is a cruel ruler who keeps Mab as a pet, then tosses her aside when she is no longer a cute child. She is also, in the eyes of Mihai, an enchanting woman who needs to be saved from the ugly world she inhabits. Unfortunately, the length of the novella doesn’t give the reader ample time to feel much sympathy for the Queen, or truly understand the bond between her and Mihai.

These three books constitute just a small sampling of the wide variety of reading experiences that young adult fantasy has to offer. Whether it is dystopian thriller, paranormal escapism, or wildly imaginative short stories, the success of these books lies in whether or not we connect to the very human emotions experienced by the teenage protagonists. There was once a time when rules felt as arbitrary and confining as Dashner’s Glade, the struggle to fit in felt as life or death as Showalter depicts, and longing for a first kiss felt as thrilling and dangerous as Taylor’s otherworldly tales. These books, like the best of YA fiction, reconnect us with that time.

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Kristin Brower Walker received her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College in Boston. She currently lives in Cooperstown, NY where she still can’t escape Red Sox fans. This is her first review for Open Letters.

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