2014 Summer Recap

In this episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, James and Charles catch up on a summer full of movies that merit discussion but not their own episodes. We discuss nine movies! Listen in and see if you can keep up as we talk Maleficent, 22 Jump Street, Edge of Tomorrow, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Fault in Our Stars, Jersey Boys, Chef, Begin Again and Obvious Child.

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

Thomas has no idea where he is or how he got there. All he can remember is his name. Blinking in the sunlight, he sees a group of boys, a motley crew who live in a strange glade surround by a stone maze.

A very flustered Thomas just became the newest Glader; he doesn’t know what that means yet, and while the other boys preach patience, the new Glader quickly decides he wants to be a runner; he can feel that this dangerous job is his destiny even though the kids around him see it as an impossibility. Runner is the toughest job by far – they run into the maze when the doors open in the morning and map the ever-changing walls, being careful to return before nightfall when they would be trapped in the maze overnight with the Grievers. That poor soul caught in the Maze at night is as good as dead. The Gladers don’t know who would put them in such a dangerous situation or why, and they’re really baffled when, in a twist from regular deliveries, the box appears again the next day to reveal a girl. A girl who knows who Thomas is. With this unprecedented turn of events, the story barrels into action as the boys begin to realize they must get out now.

Much like Thomas, the reader has no clue what is going on initially. We are just as confused about why he just showed up in a box in a glade with no memories as he is. Maybe it has something to do with signs that say W.I.C.K.E.D. all over the maze? Signs Thomas becomes aware of only because he breaks the glades number one rule; never go into the Maze. Thomas, on top of being one of the older boys in the Glade, is a fast thinker, very observant, using every advantage he has to keep up the fight, take on the Grievers, and help his companions. Oh, and he’s a little reckless..

It is amazing how these young boys, probably 12-16 years of age, band together to create a society that has stood for years. They understood that wallowing in self pity would get them nowhere besides dead, so they devised jobs to keep everyone contributing. Each job has a Keeper and when an important decision must be reached the Keepers gather and vote to find an answer. The governing hierarchy seems to work rather well; newer Gladers respect decisions of their elders. The boys have built shelter, a graveyard, a medical facility, a prison, a governing and judicial system, and a whole culture out of only the supplies provided them from the mysterious box.

The Maze Runner has a strong science fiction element, giving it the a futuristic feel even though much of the story takes place in wooden shacks in a forest. This comes from the bigger picture, floating over the boys’ existence: the whole Maze and the Glade inside it were constructed by W.I.C.K.E.D, whoever they are. They not only built the stage, they filled it with monsters too. The Grievers themselves are a mix of mechanical and organic beings that roll with a mechanized grace and maintain a squishy needle filled body. Thomas’s brain has been altered in some way to allow him to communicate with Teresa, the new girl, telepathically. Neither knows why only they can do it, but they use this gift to their advantage as they work together to decode the Maze and escape the Grievers’ wrath.

By the end of this story, I felt both satisfied by the thrilling yarn that had been spun and yet extremely unsatisfied with how much I had learned about the Maze and why it existed. What are they using it for? Are they good or bad? The epilogue gave some hint into the thoughts behind the Maze, but nothing that scratched that itch to know the truth. It is actually quite impressive the way Dashner managed to write a compelling standalone story but keep so much of the mythology behind it a secret. I, of course, needed to read the rest of the trilogy and the prequel to get my questions answered.

The Maze Runner can now be seen as a major motion picture in a theater near you. On it’s own, the movie is exciting and fun to watch, though I wouldn’t expect it to be exactly the same as the book. There are some major changes in the transition from the page to the big screen, some of which are understandable, others leaving me perplexed. The movie, which hints a little more at the purpose behind the Maze without spoiling the sequels, is enjoyable, and I was satisfactorily disgusted by the Grievers. As for the book, it is definitely worth the read, but beware you probably won’t be able to put it, or it’s companion stories down!

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Welcome to the special DragonCon edition of Amber’s Book Club! Every year at DragonCon the Young Adult literature track chooses a book and gives readers a chance to meet up and discuss it not only with other con-goers but the with the author herself!

Shadow and Bone is the first book in a Young Adult fantasy trilogy by author Leigh Bardugo. We follow a young girl, Alina Starkov, through her rise to power. Orphaned as a child and raised at Kermazin, the orphanage, Alina (along with her childhood friend Mal) are drafted into the King’s First Army once they come of age – Alina as a cartographer and Mal as a tracker. We first meet Alina as her regiment is preparing to cross the shadowfold, or Unsea, a giant rift in the country of Ravka, a huge expanse of darkness full of monsters that separates the mainland from its shore and trade routes. Surrounded by enemy nations to the north and south, Ravka is in serious need of a hero. While its king dines in luxury in Os Alta, the country is ruled by the Darkling and his Second Army of powerful Grisha. Of these Grisha, the Darkling is the most powerful, with the ability to summon darkness. His plan is to cross the Unsea as well.

A volcra attack during the crossing means that, despite the protection of the Grisha, survival looks bleak… until the volcra grabs Alina and everything is bathed in a bright sunlight as Alina succumbs. Next thing she knows, Alina has an audience with the Darkling himself, and he tells her that she is a Sun Summoner and the only hope for destroying the shadowfold and restoring Ravka.

Like any good fantasy novel,this book has an intriguing take on magic and its various applications. The Grisha are people capable of performing the small science. The Corporalki have power over the living and dead. The Materialki are an order of fabrikators, and the Etherealki, summoners. The magic is based on principles of molecular chemistry. The Grisha cannot actually create or destroy; they can only manipulate what is already there. The Inferni order of fire summoners must carry a flint to create a spark in order to manipulate flame. The more powerful a Grisha becomes, the smaller the molecular scale they can work on, allowing them to have a wider effect.

On the Dragon*Con Book Club panel, Leigh stressed the importance of not only having an order of power in a novel, but also having a sense of place. Shadow and Bone is based on Russian culture, which Leigh spent two months studying – everything from textiles to art to hymnals. This research influences the detailing in the book, giving it a cohesive background. After all, you can tell right from the names on the map that you are heading to Russi… I mean Ravka!

Alina is a wonderfully crafted creation within this quasi-Russian world. At the outset, she is very nervous as she frets about entering the shadowfold and pouts about all the other girls looking at Mal. Throughout the novel, she comes into her own and embraces her power and her own self-worth. As she begins to accept her newfound powers, she also accepts who she is, something she must do as she attempts to become the hero everyone wants an needs her to be. She is a patriot who wants to save Ravka, but at what cost? She wrestles with right and wrong as she struggles to figure out what is actually the best course of action for her country and who might be lying to her. All the characters, except perhaps the pampered king, exhibit many dimensions, not fitting into a single box, instead showing a moral ambiguity that is true to life. Even though characters drastically disagree on what is right and wrong, each one believes they are acting in the best interest of Ravka. It’s no surprise, then, that, when asked how she relates to her characters, Leigh responded that she sees a little bit of her self in all of them, but not too much of herself in any single character.

Overall Shadow and Bone is a fantastic read, quick not just because I had a deadline (had to crunch those pages before the panel!), but because it is a thoroughly enveloping story. I immediately bought and read the sequels, in spite of a lack of panels or discussions or deadlines, and finished them while at DragonCon. Which is impressive, because, I mean, come on, there are plenty of distractions at DragonCon. But that was the experience I was thirsting for after the a pleasure of being able to sit down with Leigh and ask her about her inspirations. Even without that context (and for it, you should totally go to cons like Dragon*Con, they’re great!). I would highly recommend picking this YA novel up!