Maze – J. M. McDermott – 7/10

Maze, like its namesake, is a twisting, turning and puzzling book. As with his debut novel, The Last Dragon, McDermott demonstrates a tendency to eschew traditional narrative structures, and does so with the same skill. But where in The Last Dragon he did so to play with the reader’s expectations and to draw parallels between the hopes and the realities of his protagonists’ fates, in Maze McDermott realizes an unsettling, labyrinthine world where time and space work erratically, upon their own terms. He does this in what amounts to a collection of short stories, loosely linked by the characters who recur throughout in a human village, as they arrive, live and die as the village which they build lives on around them.

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The Maze itself is the driving character of the novel. It is eerie and mysterious, populated by minotaurs, cave-men, wooden trolls, stone cows, gargoyles and Djinni, all of whom compete for survival – and it is left unclear whether they are themselves victims of the Maze, or its allies. McDermott takes familiar or near-familiar legends and twists them to create a menagerie that feels reminiscent of Wonderland if it had been written by Kafka and illustrated by Bosch. The feeling of entrapment and the stubborn human struggle to survive is pervasive, and challenges the protagonists in ways they could never have been in their previous lives.

What is the Maze? Is it Hell? Purgatory? An alien research facility? A nightmare? A sadistic fey playground? The gaps between reality? All of these theories are bandied about by the various protagonists, some of whom were born in the Maze, some of whom found themselves mysteriously within it. There is no rhyme nor reason to their arrival, there is no explanation or hope of escape. They must simply survive in the world in which they find themselves.

McDermott’s protagonists are taken from across human history – one falls to earth from the space station where she has spent her entire life, others come from medieval France, another from a dystopian America which McDermott paints with sufficient detail to intrigue the reader while never explaining the cataclysm that led to the societal breakdown. This use of vagueness, as with the Maze itself, forces the reader to fill in the gaps with their own imaginations, creating a horror particular to themselves. By bringing together space-age scientists, medieval Catholics, near-modern atheists and cynical Maze-natives, McDermott is able to explore the human condition and the ethical and cultural compromises people are able to make in order to survive.

McDermott’s characters are not entirely sympathetic; in such an environment, selfishness and cynicism can be rife. A great example of this is Wang Xin, a man who was blessed (or cursed) as a child by a Djinni – one of the more sinister denizens of the Maze, who seem to exist only to toy with humanity – so that he could see his future path, the glory he would gain, the wife he would love. When his companions cease to act out the roles he has foreseen, his resulting existential crisis proves a challenge both to himself and those around him. Wang Xin’s story is a stand-out in Maze; he is an unsettling character exploring privilege and expectation and male possessiveness over women that they “deserve”. The Maze is a dark place that often draws out the darkness in humanity. He stands in stark contrast to Joseph, a companion of his, whose friend was plucked into the Maze with him and lost to darkness despite his best efforts.

As with Last Dragon, here McDermott makes demands of his readers – to engage, to face up to darkness and fear. Here there is loss, despair, death, forbidden love; but there is also hope, comradeship and survival. Maze is by no means an easy read, and those who require all narrative threads to be neatly tied up with clear answers will be frustrated, but Maze is a rewarding read for the aficionado of speculative fiction.