Maze by J.M. McDermott
Genre: Adult science fiction/fantasy
Publisher: Apex Publications
Release date: January 2014
Source: Finished paperback from publisher
The nitty-gritty: A mind-bending journey through a terrifying landscape, a violent survival story, filled with monsters both hideous and wonderful.
There are deer here, and they’re very tasty. They all have horns along their heads and backs. White roses sprout from their tails. It’s hard to tell where the plant-like thorns end and the bone-like horns begin. They taste a little sour, but if you pour their own uncooked thorn sap upon them, they taste sweet and sticky.
There are oranges that are very tasty, too. They scream when you bite them.
Reading Maze was a little like being stuck on an out-of-control merry-go-round after dropping acid (or at least that’s what I imagine it to be like!). I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading, and some of the reviews on Goodreads made me wonder if I would enjoy this story. But I was pleasantly surprised to find I thoroughly enjoyed it. Erm, maybe “pleasant” isn’t the correct adjective to use to describe my reaction to Maze, since most of the things that occur are decidedly not pleasant at all. McDermott fills the walls of his maze with disturbing and horrifying creatures, creatures that will eat you if you don’t eat them first. As I read, I was reminded of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, the famous Dutch painter:
The story is written in a very spare style, and despite all the horrors the characters face, it was strangely devoid of emotion. For many readers this will be an immediate turn-off, as most of us love to experience the highs and lows and have “all the feels” that go with an emotion-packed story. But oddly, this lack of emotional storytelling didn’t bother me. It just worked somehow, and even though the characters relate their various experiences in the maze in deadpan prose (see above for an example), when I finished the book I had to take some time to process everything that had happened. This is the first book I’ve read by McDermott and it definitely won’t be the last.
So, the story is a bit on the convoluted side, but let me lay it out for you. Certain people, in different time periods and places, find themselves in the maze. They might go to sleep and inexplicably wake up there, or as in the case of one little boy, end up in the maze after falling off a bike. The maze is hard to describe, because it seems to act as a hub that connects different dimensions, a hub where the lost wind up. This fairly short novel is broken down into six or seven sections, and each one is the story of one of the characters, told in first person almost as if they are recounting the events for posterity. Some of the characters overlap and make an appearance in more than one section, but you see what they’re going through from someone else’s point of view. As far as a story arc goes, it’s there if you read carefully, but it’s only at the very end that I felt as if things were coming full circle. Each character’s section is a tale unto itself, and can almost be read as a short story.
Most of the action takes place in the maze, but one character’s life in the “normal” world is much more detailed than the others. Joseph lives in a post-apocalyptic city before he comes to the maze, and I felt his story was one of the strangest. He “births” a Djinni out of his side and she becomes a tiny woman that he calls Jenny Ghost. Jenny is the one who drags him into the maze, and his journey there was truly one of the most horrifying scenes I’ve ever read. (It involves maggots. Enough said.)
One of my favorite characters was a girl named Julie, who is born in the maze, and so she knows no other life. Her story is very familiar: she marries a man but then has an affair with another man. When their tryst is discovered, they are cast out of their tribe to survive in the maze on their own.
The most unusual parts of Maze were the endless descriptions of monsters and other odd creatures that live there. Trolls, gargoyles, cavemen, and animals that exist only in the pages of this book—like the rose deer, an animal that grows in the ground, looks like a deer, and has roses growing from its antlers—are only some of the strange things you’ll encounter. I loved the gargoyles, stone creatures who can only move when no one is looking at them. A sense of creepy dread hung over me the entire time I was reading Maze, and it lingered long after I had finished.
I must warn any squeamish readers out there that this book has lots of gore in it. At its most basic level, this is a survival story, and the people who come to the maze are always hungry, always thirsty, and always trying to find something to eat or drink, even if it means cooking the leather of a troll and chewing on it. In the maze, it’s kill or be killed, and so there is quite a bit of killing! People here learn to place the bodies of their dead on top of the walls, so that they will draw scavengers which can be killed for food.
I’m not sure I would ever read this book again, but I do applaud McDermott’s skillful writing and his brave sense of imagination, which I rarely see in fiction these days. I have to say that Apex did it again: they have published an unusual book that is impossible to categorize. And that’s why small presses like Apex are so important. Anyone can follow a formula and write a trendy story, but not everyone can write outside the lines like McDermott has in Maze. For the brave souls among you, I hope you will give this one a shot.
Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.
You can find Maze here: