The Luck Uglies #2: Fork-Tongue Charmers. By Paul Durham. Illustrations by Pétur Antonsson. Harper. $16.99.
The Maze Runner Collector’s Edition: The Maze Runner and The Scorch Trials. By James Dashner. Delacorte Press. $19.99.
Continuations of series aimed at preteens and teenagers are often structured simply to give readers more of the same: whatever the first book delivered, the next will deliver with some new characters and settings but with an adventure closely modeled on the initial one. This is on the basis that readers come to the second part wanting just what they got in the first one, only more so. Both Paul Durham and James Dashner clearly understand this. Durham’s The Luck Uglies sequence moves in its second entry, Fork-Tongue Charmers, only a short distance from where the first book went. We return to the village of Drowning and return to protagonist Rye O’Chanter. We return to a world where lies and deceit make it difficult for Rye to know whom to trust – although the “lies and deceit” trope is present in virtually every book for this age group, as it is in so many books intended for adults. The event that moves the plot this time is the arrival in Drowning of a new constable – who declares Rye an outlaw and forces her to escape (on a pirate ship, no less) to the Isle of Pest. The interactions, uncertainties, fights and betrayals here are nothing particularly new, although the introduction of some new characters (including Belongers, Intuitives and Uninviteds) expands Durham’s fantasy world to some extent. The events, though, are scarcely out of the ordinary, and they tend to be telegraphed through formulaic prose. For instance, when Rye spots a place called the Wailing Cave and asks another character, Waldron, what is in it, she gets this response: “‘Nothing,’ Waldron said quickly. ‘At least nothing anyone should go looking for.’ He seemed to hesitate. ‘Many a young man has entered the mouth of that cave. But none have ever returned.’” So of course the mystery of this cave is going to be one that Rye has to unravel; and the book is filled with similar instances of the writing pointing with unerring clarity at every upcoming plot point. The plot itself is, not surprisingly, full of twists and turns, but Fork-Tongue Charmers is not as suspenseful as the first novel in the sequence – although the conclusion is exciting enough to keep readers involved and likely leave them waiting for the next book. The illustrations help, too: Pétur Antonsson, his work often looking as if it was inspired by Mary GrandPré’s illustrations for the U.S. editions of the Harry Potter books, conjures up a more-interesting and often scarier world than does Durham’s prose.
Durham is, however, a better writer than Dashner, which may explain why The Maze Runner is so appealing to a Hollywood that is always looking for the next big thing that duplicates the last big thing but is different – and is very easy to understand. In this case, the last big thing was Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and Dashner’s The Maze Runner trilogy is seen as the foundation of more blockbuster films that will, however, skew more toward boys than girls. It is easy to see why Dashner’s exceptionally formulaic plotting and simple writing are appealing to the film industry. And it is equally easy to understand why a new “Collector’s Edition” paperback of The Maze Runner has now been brought out as a film tie-in, with a front-cover sticker reading “Now a Major Motion Picture” and a bound-in-book removable “fan sticker” with the ominous phrase, “WICKED is good” (a climactic revelation from the second novel). The new edition itself is a bit of an oddity, containing only the first two books of the series while omitting the concluding The Death Cure (although a small amount of “bonus material” is included as a lure). Perhaps there are plans to release a “Collector’s Edition” with the final novel as well the series’ prequel, The Kill Order. In any case, fans wanting the first two books in a single almost-400-page paperback are the target audience for this edition. What those unfamiliar with The Maze Runner will find here is an extremely uninteresting heroic central character (Thomas) with no personality whatsoever, who shows up in a “Box” in a mysterious place one day with his entire memory wiped except, conveniently, for his name. The place he shows up has only teenage boys in it – until, inevitably, a teenage girl later arrives, for reasons initially unexplained but absolutely necessary so the author is not accused of leaving girls out. Anyway, the boys are uniformly unfriendly and unhelpful, refusing to tell Thomas anything about their home, which they call the Glade. The Glade is surrounded by high walls, outside of which is the Maze, which has evil (but not especially scary) creatures called Grievers in it, and they are bad news for anyone who gets trapped in the Maze at night. The Grievers can climb to get their victims, but for some reason never climb the walls into the Glade – oh wait, the reason is that then there wouldn’t be a book. Anyhow, the Grievers can kill, dismember, or merely sting people, but the sting may be the worst option, since it results in the boys needing Grief Serum that then triggers the Change, and you will notice that there are lots of Capital Letters in describing What Happens and Where and How, because that is the Style of Books Like This One, for No Apparent Reason. There is also Silly Slang, also for No Apparent Reason. Anyway, the plot moves ahead quickly at first, through a series of Unbelievable Coincidences in which there is plenty of Violence. Then Thomas, inevitably, ends up in the Maze at night, and then the girl who showed up the day after Thomas did starts telling him things – not before, only during his night in the Maze, through an exceptionally creaky plot device – and bit by bit, secrets that there was no reason to keep secret start being revealed, until eventually the boys learn how the walls of the Maze move and what happens when they do, and Thomas inevitably goes through the Change, and things progress from frantic to silly and back again as the book lurches toward a cliffhanger ending. In the second book, The Scorch Trials, readers find out more about WICKED (a silly acronym for the very silly “World in Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department"), and Thomas finds out more about the girl, Teresa, to whom he is telepathically connected but whom he (big surprise) is not sure he can trust. Indeed, his failure to trust her seems like good common sense here (about the first time Thomas has exhibited any such thing), but eventually it turns out that maybe Thomas should have trusted her all along, so then he tells her to go away, and she does. Apparently. It is she who gives Thomas that ominous parting “WICKED is good” message, setting up the plot of the final book. Plot holes and absurdities abound throughout The Maze Runner series, but there is certainly enough surface-level excitement to sustain and even intrigue readers who do not want to look particularly closely at matters such as personalities and character development. The extreme simplicity and obviousness of the plot and the over-the-top handling of it make The Maze Runner and its sequels (++) books. But not-particularly-good-or-original books can sometimes be turned into not-particularly-good-or-original movies that are nevertheless financial successes. That is obviously Hollywood’s hope – and anyone who does see and enjoy The Maze Runner film without having read the book first may want this “Collector’s Edition” as a way to relive the movie experience.
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