Title: The Red Labyrinth
Author: Meredith Tate
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Publication Date: June 4th, 2019
Word/Page Count: 352 pages (paperback)
Synopsis from Goodreads:
The massive labyrinth was built to protect Zadie Kalver’s isolated desert town. Unfortunately, living in the maze’s shadow makes her feel anything but safe. Even without its enchanted deathtraps and illusions, a mysterious killer named Dex lurks in its corridors, terrorizing anyone in his path.
But when Zadie’s best friend vanishes into the labyrinth-and everyone mysteriously forgets he exists- completing the maze becomes her only hope of saving him. In desperation, Zadie bribes the only person who knows the safe path through-Dex-into forming a tenuous alliance.
Navigating a deadly garden, a lethal blood-filled hourglass, and other traps-with an untrustworthy murderer for her guide-Zadie’s one wrong step from certain death. But with time running out before her friend (and secret crush) is lost forever, Zadie must reach the exit and find him. If Dex and the labyrinth don’t kill her first.
The blurb won me over with the similarities to David Bowie’s Labyrinth (I totally self-inserted as Sarah and swooned over the Goblin King as a teen!) and aside from that, I am a sucker for enemies-to-lovers plotlines, so I was super keen to read this. But unfortunately the book failed to hook me. It seems to have been popular with other readers so I hate to say that it missed the mark for me, but I’m going to be honest, I really struggled reading this.
FYI, our heroine Zadie doesn’t enter the titular labyrinth until ‘Part 2’, which was 32% on my e-ARC. So if you’re impatient for the adventure that was promised, be prepared to settle in for the long haul as it doesn’t happen until a third of the way in, which I think is the definition of problematic pacing. I don’t need thrills and chills if there is solid world-building or strong characterization to latch onto instead, but The Red Labyrinth was a letdown on both fronts for me.
It fell into the trap of ‘telling, not showing’ with dry info-dumps and yet it also didn’t provide enough information. We’re told about the division between the Skilled and the Blanks, the Leader who is all-powerful and controls their resources, but there was no context for these details. How does the Leader maintain his hold over the population when he is so far removed from them? I could understand if he ruled by fear because he could withhold water which is their most precious resource, but instead he is set up as an omnipotent and benevolent ruler who is worshiped by all (‘Praise the Leader’). But he only communicates via hologram because his palace is at the end of a deadly labyrinth, one which holds dangers that have claimed many lives, and yet NOBODY holds him accountable for this? And you think people would be more resentful of him for not freely distributing water to them rather than being super grateful for the one day a year he grants free water. Revolutions in real life have started over less, and that’s without the benefit of superpowers!
Apparently there are only wastelands beyond Trinnea where the rest of humanity perished in the drought and only the Skilled survived, which is the basis of Blank persecution – yet there is somehow a thriving Blank population right outside the Trinnean border. If everyone else in the world supposedly died, and only occasional Blanks are born to the Skilled who live charmed lives in Trinnea, how is there enough of them to fill up an entire town complete with a large mining industry? They live in squalor and misery in the worst conditions imaginable, but when Landon and Valerie are left orphaned, apparently the ONLY possible solution is to send these precious Skilled children out to the wastes and house them in the mining bunks with the loathsome Blanks? Not one person in the entire city could find a couch for them? So much just doesn’t make sense here.
Then there’s the interminable flashbacks to establish Zadie’s history and her relationship with various characters. I’m not a fan of flashbacks in general and certainly not to the extent they’re employed here. I much prefer that we grasp the dynamics between characters by seeing them interact and that we gather the details of a protagonist’s backstory more organically than by having her reminisce over several pages about a memory triggered by gazing into someone’s eyes.
All this aside, I could’ve still found the book appealing if I bought the characters as realistic and three-dimensional…but that wasn’t to be. Zadie was a passive protagonist by nature as she lacked Skills, which cast her in the damsel in distress role, but I don’t blame her for that, the problem is that she could’ve been more. If she only used her brain and reasoning skills, she could’ve been more independent, but instead time after time, she disregarded instructions meant to help her, she willfully walked into danger and put her own life in jeopardy for no reason at all. She’s the kind of person that if you tell them not to touch the big red button that says ‘self-destruct’, she will IMMEDIATELY proceed to do so and then act surprised when it brings about impending doom.
Dex has no need for introductions to Zadie as his reputation as the ‘Devil of Trinnea’ precedes him, and he constantly tells her that he’s no hero, that he’s motivated out of self-interest…yet he does something that she disagrees with and her response is to rant at him for being a ‘monster’ and then fall into his arms and sob into his chest. The mind boggles. A real monster would’ve slit her throat in an instant instead of holding her. Zadie didn’t need to have a Skill to be a decent protagonist, I don’t expect her to be able to fight off skeleton hordes on her own or anything, but this kind of behavior just doesn’t seem remotely believable and makes her seem shallow and insubstantial as a character.
Funnily enough, the best thing about this book for me was something that polarized other readers! I really appreciated Landon’s arc and how cleverly the author subverted the usual love interest trope with him. I rolled my eyes at first at how cliche he appeared, but that was the whole point! I fell for it, I admit, I really had the wool pulled over my eyes. I just wish that Zadie was given as much nuance and subtlety as Landon.
I must warn you that the book finishes on a cliffhanger and that at present, there is no established plan for a sequel. The author has indicated her interest in writing another book, but the publisher hasn’t given the go-ahead, so prepare yourself to turn the last page and shriek at the way it ends because there is no resolution or closure.
Personal Rating: 2 out of 5 kitties recommend this book.
Note: this may not have rocked my world, but these bloggers were more positive, so take my opinion with a grain of salt and try it for yourself. 🙂
Disclaimer: I received a digital copy free from Flux via Netgalley for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.