Long before Thomas and the other Gladers entered the Maze, there were people who made it all possible. Two of those were Mark and Trina, best friends from New York, who survived the sun flares when they first hit. Most of the world's population was decimated, but after the worst was over, Mark and Trina, along with several other survivors, tried to rebuild a life in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. Between supplies they receive from a nearby city and living off the land, they've been doing pretty well, until one day, a Berg comes, raining down darts that carry a deadly virus. Mark, Trina, and those who don't die instantly go on the run, seeking answers to why someone would do something so cruel. As they travel around the area, they encounter others who appear to be infected with an uncontrollable, murderous rage. As Mark and the others uncover more information about what led to this turn of events, they become more and more convinced that there is a cure and that the key to it may be within their grasp, pitting them in a race against time to get it into the hands of those who may be able to use it to save humanity.
The Kill Order is the first of two prequels to James Dashner's The Maze Runner series. Even though it was written later, it chronologically pre-dates the main three books of The Maze Runner, and unfortunately this is how most online book sites now have it listed. I say unfortunately, because IMHO, it really should be read as book #4, and this is how the author lists it on his website, too. The reason I think it shouldn't be read until after the original Maze Runner trilogy, though, is that the reader will get significant spoilers for those books in the prequels. Much of the mystery of why the Maze exists and it's purpose is revealed as well as character connections that are unknown at the beginning of The Maze Runner. Therefore, I highly caution readers like myself, who don't like spoilers of any kind, to beware.
The prologue of The Kill Order begins just before the events of The Maze Runner, and we see Teresa preparing for what's to come. Then the story jumps back in time by thirteen years to a few months after the sun flares decimated the Earth. Those who survived the flares are now simply trying to stay alive. Some of them, including our main characters, live in small shanty-town type communities in the Appalachian mountains, where they're mostly living off the land. All things considered, life is going pretty well for them, until one day, out of the blue, a Berg (an airship) comes flying through, raining down poisonous darts upon the unsuspecting population that are infected with a virus. They have no idea who might be doing this to them or why, but they intend to find out. And what they discover is a cruel plot by the government that went horribly awry, turning thousands of human beings into vicious, mindless, zombie-like creatures who present danger at every turn.
Aside from the prologue and a bonus scene at the end of the book, both of which are told from Teresa's perspective, The Kill Order has an entirely new cast of characters. The main part of the story is told from the third-person POV of Mark, a teenager from New York City, who managed to survive the sun flares. We get both his narration of the events that are currently happening, surrounding the virus, as well as flashbacks to when the flares hit and the immediate aftermath, showing us what that was like, how he lived through it, and how he ended up in the Appalachians of North Carolina not far from Asheville. He has a number of friends, including his best friend, Trina, who he's known for most of his life and for whom he has romantic feelings that she's just starting to show signs of reciprocating. Then there's Alec, an older man who is a former soldier with excellent survival skills who has become something of a surrogate father to him, as well as Lana, an ex-military nurse who has been a colleague of Alec's for years. These two look out for Mark, Trina and a small group of other teens they rescued from the subtrans system in New York right after the flares and they've all become a fairly tight-knit little family. Deedee, a little girl of only about five years old, is added to the mix when they find her wandering alone and abandoned, following the release of the virus. However, it's mostly Mark and Alec who steal the show. They're the ones who take most of the risks to gather information and defend their friends, and they're always the ones right in the thick of the action, whereas the others are largely in the background. Mark is a teen who's seen far more horrors in the past few months than ever in his life and it's scarred his psyche, but he has a strength of spirit that keeps him going. He'll do whatever he needs to do to survive, especially when it comes to protecting Trina. Alec is a tough old bear of a man who is a good leader and does whatever needs to be done. I liked both characters and thought they made a great team.
For YA books, I always take a moment to discuss potentially objectionable content. Other than a couple of chaste kisses and a one-line joke that lightly alludes to sex (but that didn't actually happen), there is no sexual content to speak of. There are only a handful of mild bad words, too. So the main area of concern is going to be violence, which in some ways, I felt was a little stronger in this book than the previous ones. After the virus-laden darts are unleashed, which happens in the second chapter, our characters face near-constant danger and peril. Both Mark and Alec end up killing a number of people throughout the story, including Alec committing two mercy killings of friends. Granted most of these people are infected with the virus and beyond saving, but the high body count could be disturbing to younger or more sensitive readers. They also encounter stacks of bodies with the stench of death reeking on the air in a couple of scenes as well as in the flashbacks of the time right after the flares hit. In another scene, they find a group of filthy, frightened children huddled in a basement but have to leave them behind, which could prove scary for younger kids. Then there are the infected people who act in varying levels of craziness from simply not making sense, all the way up to murderous rages. This part almost borders on being a horror story. Granted the author does keep it somewhat toned down, probably in deference to the younger audience for which it was written, but due to the high level of violence and potentially disturbing content, I probably would only recommend this book for mature teens of approximately fifteen and up.
Overall, The Kill Order was a great read. The non-stop action and suspense kept me on the edge of my seat and the author has a knack for ending most chapters on a mini-cliff-hanger that makes it hard to put down. However, the reason I dropped the half-star is that it often felt like the characters were merely running from one danger to the next with little breathing room in between. Sure there are moments where they slow down a bit to regroup or pick up tidbits of information, but there's always that looming presence of danger in the background. I felt like the relentlessness of it all, along with the rather tragic ending made this a pretty heavy read, which is another reason I don't recommend the book for younger readers. I didn't dislike the ending, though, because unlike another book I read in the same genre that had a similarly heartbreaking end, I felt like this one was much more poignant and for a good reason. But other than wishing that there were a few more moments of levity or time to take a breath in between all the peril, this was a very well-written book that was a great addition to the series. I enjoyed finding out what it was like when the flares hit and immediately afterward as well as the origins of the Flare virus. I look forward to reading, The Fever Code, the final full-length book of the series soon, which will hopefully tell more about the origins of the Maze.
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