Friday, July 19, 2013

The Maze, By Jason Brannon (Two Perspectives, Two Reviews)

Review #1 By "Professor Alan"
(A copy of the work was provided by the publisher for this review)

Jamie Burroughs seems like a thoroughly decent man, with a wife (Amy) and son (Peter). But when he runs into an old girlfriend (Karen) one day at lunch, he quickly finds himself wandering down dark paths of temptation. On the verge of committing adultery with Karen, an angel-faced man snatches him away into a dark labyrinth. This maze, created by angels and demons, is constructed around Jamie's personal sins and weaknesses. He must escape to save not just his own life, but those of Amy & Peter, as well.

The majority of the action takes place in this maze, with Jamie narrating his trauma and travails. He has to solve bizarre puzzles, face demons and monsters, and repent and grow. As exciting as this part of the book should be, there is an issue of pacing, and the book noticeably slows when Jamie enters the labyrinth. And there is a repetitive nature of Jamie's time in the maze, and I worried that the journey would be simply a matter of wandering from room to room, from repentance to repentance. But the specifics of each test are different enough for that to not totally be the case.

Jamie's journey in the maze is broken up by scenes of his family being tormented by a crazed neighbor, who himself is demon-oppressed and psychologically unbalanced. I like that Brannon eschews the typical trope of Christian fiction where saying the "sinner's prayer" solves someone's every problem. We know from our experience that at most, that is the start of a lifelong journey of striving to become more like Jesus. The neighbor, Darrell Gene, is led to the Lord by another man, but this act does not instantly deliver him of his mental and spiritual issues. This is a much more realistic view of sanctification and healing than one often finds in Christian fiction.

These parts of the novel not involving Jamie are told in third-person narration, and there is a bit of recalibrating needed when shifting from the first-person chapters to the third-person chapters. But Brannon is a skilled writer, and he is able to make these two separate aspects of the novel usually feel like parts of a cohesive whole.

The line between temptation and sin is a tricky one in Christianity, seen most clearly in the person of Christ. He was tempted in every way, yet without sin. That sounds like it could be a semantic quibble, but in theological terms, the distinction between sin and temptation is important. I am not clear in this novel where that line was crossed for Jamie, and whether this labyrinth was about temptation or whether it was about sin. It is also not clear to me why Jamie had to go through these tests, and whether the point is that every believer has their own labyrinth to traverse, or if Jamie was a special case. That's never answered.

There are obvious symbolic and allegorical aspects in The Maze, and yet the book clearly takes place in our world. So there a was a bit of a disconnect for me as to how much of Jamie's work in the maze, was "real" and how much was in a spiritual realm or merely symbolic. The demons physically built the maze, there was noise and saws and construction, in scenes that were not from Jamie's perspective, but there was also a clear "in the spirit" or "in the mind" aspect to his journey.

As a reader, I believe that symbolism is best when it is not explained. Christian fiction does not do nuance particularly well. I would have liked Brannon to leave some of the imagery unexplained, as opposed to being spoon-fed all the meanings.

Hearkening back to C.S. Lewis, Brannon is not afraid to include elements from Greek mythology (and a few others) in his version of spiritual warfare. That gave the book a well-rounded feel.  There is also a theme involving the theology of free will, and I liked that discussion.

Overall, this is a solid book, and it stands out from other Christian novels in positive ways. As such, I give The Maze an 8.0 for quality. The nature of the book, and the questions that Brannon asks, are impossible to avoid, and important. As such, I give The Maze a 9.5 for relevance.

Review #2 by Nathan James Norman, host of The Untold Podcast.

Summary: Jamie Burroughs, a suburban insurance salesman has been making a series of bad moral decisions. On the verge of cheating on his wife, he is assaulted by an angel-masked man and awakens inside a dark labyrinth. And while he may be the only human inside the maze . . . he’s not alone. Jamie must find a way to escape the maze – built around his vices – to not just save his life, but the lives of his wife and son as well.

Review: I almost want to categorize The Maze as a spiritual allegory. But that would be over-simplifying Jason Brannon’s supernatural suspense novel. The backdrop of the story focuses on Jamie’s spiritual fight against his own sinful desires (the flesh), but there are also strong themes of family drama, interpersonal conflict and spiritual warfare that undergird the narrative.

Brannon has created a very unique world in the Maze that infuses mythological Greek characters into the Christian worldview he presents. And it works well.

I had a few qualms with the book, however. First, the pacing of the book right after Jamie enters the maze began to get really slow. At one point I wondered if the rest of the book was going to consist of Jamie wandering from room to room, repenting of his sins, then moving to the next room. Fortunately, this is not the case, and the pace picks up as soon as he encounters the Minotaur face to face. Additionally, there were a few moments where Brannon deflated the tension of the story a little too quickly. And at times Jamie’s transgressions felt a bit too generic, rather than the harmful sins they actually were.

But The Maze is a great supernatural thriller. Fans of speculative fiction and contemporary supernatural drama (infused with a touch of horror) will really enjoy the book. I would also recommend the novel to individuals who need to get a good picture of the effects of their harmful desires, and the constant battle it takes to overcome them.

On a last note, while the novel has a very satisfying ending and works well as a stand alone book, Brannon leaves open the possibilities for a sequel and I really hope to see one (especially if it focuses on one of the antagonists as the main character)! I’ll be one of the first in line to read it!

I give The Maze a quality score of 8/10, and a relevance score of 10/10 because it would be hard to not have a meaningful conversation after reading this book

Rating: 4/5 Stars (I really liked it)

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