When I was a teenager, dystopian books of the young-adult variety like The Maze Runner were my weakness. The dystopian settings, the romance, the survival aspects, the rise of an underdog trope, the rebellion against the authority, and the message they embody were not just appealing to me; I could vehemently relate to those feelings. I still fancy reading YA dystopian novels even as an adult and literally devoured them during the pandemic more than ever. They are engaging, entertaining and cautionary.
For fans like me or youngbloods, who want to hop on to something equally thrilling or imaginative, I scoured the labyrinth of dystopian fiction in search of the best books like The Maze Runner and have found these 15 dystopian novels that you’ll enjoy.
What is Dystopian Fiction?
Before moving forward, let me give you a crash course on what dystopian fiction is. It is essentially a subgenre of a broad “Speculative Fiction”. The dystopian genre imagines a vision of the future by extrapolating the existing dangers of our society’s social, technological and political structures. Dystopian stories often have a dark, oppressive tone, and can be warnings about the future we’re heading in. Often, these stories help us make sense of the chaos around us so we can better prepare ourselves. The popularity of dystopian fiction has seen exponential growth in pop culture, particularly YA dystopian literature among tweens and teens. Netflix’s survival-themed Squid Game is a recent example that took the world by storm.
The theme of dystopian novels generally revolves around these tropes:
- Administrative control
- Geo-Environmental destruction
- Loss of individualism
- Class disparity
- Technological control
15 Best Dystopian Books Like ‘The Maze Runner’
I’ve put together these 15 best dystopian books similar to ‘The Maze Runner’, but each has something unique to offer and can set itself apart. On this list, you will find dystopian steampunk, dystopian romance, dystopian fantasy, classic dystopian, sci-fi dystopian and a few others that will capture your imagination with their gripping plot, propulsive action, fast-paced stories and deft prose. Though this dystopian book recommendations heavily gravitate towards YA, there are a few for mature readers and the fans of the dystopian genre in general as well.
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1. The Hunger Game By Suzanne Collins
A trilogy set in dystopian districts that host deadly games
It is impossible to avoid The Hunger Games on a list of best dystopian books like The Maze Runner. Even after more than a decade since it was first published, this book holds up so well that re-reading it is a treat. Suzzane Collins’ iconic masterpiece The Hunger Games has earned its place as a mainstay in YA dystopian literature for its portrayal of love and sacrifice, strong and intelligent female protagonist, impeccable writing and appeal to all ages.
What’s The Hunger Games about? The story takes place in the post-apocalyptic nation of Panem; a glitzy wealthy Capitol encircled by twelve dilapidated districts, which exists amid the ruins of what was once North America. Years ago, these districts declared war on the Capitol and were charred by the defeat. As part of the surrender, now each district sends one boy and girl at random to compete to the death in a yearly televised reality show The Hunger Games. When her younger sister is selected, Katniss Everdeen, 16, volunteers herself despite being aware of the danger. Between the continuously changing landscape and rules of the game, one thing remains constant for contenders: kill or be killed.
Spectacular, exciting and engaging read; The Hunger Games puts you right inside the Arena. Suzanne Collin adds a dystopian twist to the reality show Big Brother, which itself draws inspiration from George Orwell’s classic ‘1984’. The book has much more than action and violence. Pick this one without batting an eyelid if you’re looking for books like The Maze Runner.
2. Uglies by Scott Westerfield
A Futuristic YA dystopian novel for selfie generation
First in a trilogy, Uglies series has an unforgettable and unique premise, engaging plot and fast pacing. I was impressed to see how skillfully Scott Westerfield writes a female protagonist that is relatable and realistic. Uglies is, in fact, a bold departure from the dystopian convention of external conflict and violence. Instead, it feeds off the internal and psychological conflict.
What’s Uglies about? The book is set in a futuristic world formed after going through a post-apocalyptic disaster. The story of Uglies by Scott Westerfield revolves around Tally Youngblood, who is about to turn sixteen. She lives in a dystopia where everyone is considered ugly until they undergo intense cosmetic surgery at the age of 16. That’s her only way to join the high-tech utopia of pretties and live a happy-go-lucky life. However, the plot happens and it’s not long before she begins to question her choice and what it really means to be beautiful. She discovers the sinister forces at play which leads her to rebel against the leader she once admired with her band of runaways.
Apart from familiar YA dystopian tropes, the stark similarity between The Maze Runner and Uglies is that both protagonists want to escape from a place. There is also a subtle romance. The only caveat is that, like most dystopian novels for teens, side characters are not very well developed.
You would adore Uglies series. It mirrors the modern-day societal pressure we face to look and act in a certain way. Highly recommended for the fans of YA dystopian novels and The Maze Runner alike!
The good news is that Uglies has been adapted for a Netflix movie. It is set to be released by late 2022. So grab the book before that if you haven’t read it already.
3. Red Rising by Pierce Brown:
A violent sci-fi dystopian series fueled by revenge
Darker, more brutal and emotionally deep, Red Rising by Pierce Brown is in a league of its own. It will terrify you with the futuristic evils that an actual dystopia brings. You would devour the Red Rising series if you loved The Maze Runner or The Hunger Games.
What’s Red Rising about? The story of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising pivots around a low-caste miner, Darrow. He lives in an underground colony on Mars under a totalitarian regime that segregates its citizens based on colors. When tragedy strikes, he discovers the lie he has been fed and the reality of him – and other Reds – being nothing more than an expendable slave, working for a decadent regime living on the surface. Fueled by a desire to avenge, Darrow gets an opportunity to bring down the tyrants and free his people. He infiltrates the battle school of the Gold caste where elitist leaders compete for the throne. What follows next is a story of the battle, betrayal, and fluctuating allegiances in his quest to penetrate deeper into the community he has pledged to destroy.
It’s a fast-paced dystopian space epic with great characters and one of my favorite tropes of all time — an underdog rising the dystopian ranks. It gave me an impression of Spartacus meets science fiction or Thomas in a Battle Royale. If you are looking for a book like The Maze Runner, but more mature and grim, then you cannot miss out on this one.
4. Gone by Michael Grant:
A sci-fi dystopia of kids with no adults, no rules and no escape
So you have had enough of the dystopian world where adults get to rule, and the government oppresses the teenagers. You just want them to vanish into thin air so you can feel free? This is exactly what Michael Grant imagines in his not so strictly YA dystopian series Gone. The book is along the lines of The Maze Runner and Lord of the Flies yet it creates a phenomenal world of its own.
What’s Gone about? One day, everyone over the age of 15 mysteriously disappears, leaving the whole town in the hands of teens. Not just that, they are also disconnected from the world — no internet, no phone, no supplies, not even a single hole to escape from the dome. Soon the kids realize they are developing talents and supernatural powers that give rise to a rift among them. What ensues next is the deadly struggle for securing power and leadership in a world gone crazy.
For the fans of dystopian fiction, Michael Grant’s Gone builds up an intriguing post-apocalyptic premise and absolutely thought-provoking narrative that will get you thinking, what would you do if you were there?
Sadly, it aches my heart to see the kids in the book get hurt and a few of them die, which can be pretty difficult to stomach for tweens or kids who are in their formative years. However, it does give them a newfound appreciation for their guardians and other adults on the planet.
Gone deftly blends the dystopia with science fiction and fantasy to create an action-filled thriller where the struggle between good and evil, memorable characters, romance and crafty twists will keep you glued to the novel until it’s gone. It was published the same year as The Hunger Games which probably overshadowed it. Otherwise, it’s one of the best YA dystopian books I have read in a long time.
5. Unwind by Neal Shusterman
A provoking dystopian thriller about body harvesting
Unwind series by Neal Shusterman is an excitingly fresh take on the value of human life and who really owns it through a dystopian lens. Is it the government or is it you? It’s a thought-provoking yet grimly disturbing read that asks about our conviction on the difficult and emotional subjects of organ donation, abortion and our right to make a choice. The storyline touches upon the similar themes of escape and survival as we see in The Maze Runner but features a very astounding premise.
What is Unwind about? Set in a dystopia of the Second American Civil War fought over reproductive rights, the story follows three problematic teens set to be “unwound” for various reasons. Abortion is illegal as result of war resolution, but parents of unwanted or troublemakers have an option to “unwind” them; meaning organs or body parts of kids from ages 13 to 18 can be transplanted into a different donor and “technically” not ending a life. Therefore, Connor, Risa and Lev are on the run for their lives, but will they survive until they reach the age of 18?
Unwind Dystology has political or religious undertones of pro-choice vs pro-life conflict. It’s a poignant and heart-wrenching yet highly intelligent YA dystopian novel about powerless kids in the hands of those who should be fully responsible for them. One of the best YA dystopian series you would come across. Would recommend it to mature readers.
6. Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
A classic dystopian novel about survival
Published in 1955, Tunnel in the Sky is an original and timeless dystopian novel by a grandmaster of science fiction Robert Heinlein. His scientific imagination has been a source of inspiration for many authors and influenced their works. You’d be amazed to see the parallels this Heinlein classic has with The Maze Runner.
What’s Tunnel in the Sky about? Set in the future, an interstellar portal allows the Earth’s excess population to easily relocate to other planets. Rod Walker, a senior in high school harbors the ambition to become a colonizer. In this wake, he leaves to take an obligatory ‘advanced survival test’ that is supposed to last for a few days. However, something goes awry and just like Thomas, Rod is left stranded on an unknown planet with harsh terrain. There, he runs into fellow boys and girls who must join each other to survive their stay.
Three things: The bulk of the book is not science fiction but a fascinating tale of survival, the protagonist is a black teenager and there is an American Dream like saga that adds to its realism and humor. An optimistic and resilient story with a constant sense of tension, Tunnel in the Sky is one of the best classic dystopian novels and a must-have for your dystopian shelf, if searching for books like The Maze Runner.
7. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Retro-Futuristic dystopia with a gaming quest
Pac-Man style cover on the front and Ernest Cline posing with an open-flapped DMC DeLorean on the back, just like the one in Back to the Future naturally caught my attention. Ready Player One is much more than what it appears to be and cyberpunk is just one trope of it among many others.
What’s Ready Player One about? First in the duology, Ready Player One is set in the year 2044. It has been more than five years since the wealthy inventor James Halliday died. He has left behind a mischievous legacy of the virtual reality game OASIS riddled with puzzles and clues. Whoever first finds the Easter Egg will inherit $250 billion and control of OASIS. The game is reminiscent of the ’80s and 90’s pop culture because its creator was obsessed with that period. When protagonist Wade Watts cracks one of the riddles, his name nudges to the top of the leaderboard and his popularity skyrockets. What comes next is a renewed interest in Halliday’s egg hunting and terrifying events for Wade as he tries to win the race whilst evading deadly attacks, in reality.
In this age of metaverse where people are flexing NFTs, owning real estate in Decentraland, and even hosting birthday parties in the digital world; the premise of Ready Player One seems exciting, relevant and plausible to me. The book has just the right amount of twists and character building to keep you invested in its geeky world without overdoing anything. There is even a romance that I wasn’t expecting.
If The Maze Runner had WCKD then in Ready Player One we get to see OASIS and IOI. The book signifies the importance of networking, teamwork and not losing touch with reality through its sci-fi dystopian lens. If you want to escape into a video game or take a trip down the memory lane, this book is for you to geek out.
*Insert the coin* Ready Player One?
8. Divergent by Veronica Roth
A unique and riveting dystopian sci-fi
Another predictable name in a list of best dystopian books like The Maze Runner is Veronica Roth’s Divergent series.
What Divergent is about? Set in a dystopian Chicago, the Divergent series features five factions in which people are grouped based on the best of their abilities: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), and Erudite (the intelligent). But, there exists a conspiracy to destabilize the system, which the main protagonist Tris must find and prevent. Tris is a Divergent, a person who does not belong to any single faction. She has an advantage over others. This innate ability makes them a threat to a faction-based society and those who want to control it. The story follows Tris as she conceals her true identity while advancing in the group of her choice.
Though Divergent is a tad bit different but still it shares many themes with The Maze Runner including mystery, deceit and survival. It’s an action thriller and one of the best dystopian novels that appeal to both teens and adults.
9. Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve
An adventurous, steampunk dystopian series for YA
If The Maze Runner amazed you with its grandiose maze then you’ll be completely blown away by the exciting and imaginative world that Philip Reeve builds in his much raved Mortal Engine series.
What is the Mortal Engine series about? First in the quartet, Mortal Engine is set in a post-apocalyptic world where a “sixty-minute war” left a major geological instability in the form of perpetual earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. To avoid the inevitable, the world has adapted and a new way of living has evolved. Cities have become gigantic moving machines, ruthlessly preying upon smaller traction towns. The protagonist Tom Natsworthy is nobody and belongs to a lower tier. He lands himself in the struggle to stop the city of London from destroying others when his path crosses with a mysterious girl having a big scar on her face, Hester Shaw.
It is a startling, epic adventure series that draws you into its fascinating dystopian world of steampunk, memorable characters and action in the air. Fans of YA dystopian fiction will enjoy it.
10. The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
Alien Invasion calls for action in this post-apocalyptic dystopian
This book didn’t impress me much. Or maybe I could not establish an empathetic connection as an adult reader. It has highs but many lows as well. Nevertheless, there exists a hype surrounding The 5th Wave trilogy among the teenagers that convinced me to add this action-oriented series to a list of best dystopian books like The Maze Runner.
What is The 5th Wave about? Unlike other dystopian novels where the apocalypse is mostly caused by a natural disaster or man-made inventions, in The 5th Wave, we get to witness the end of the world by an alien invasion in the form of 5 increasingly deadly waves of destruction. No, these aliens are not like ‘Grievers’. They are like us — but far smarter and clever – and are called “the Others”. Our protagonist Cassie, who is a high school student, has so far managed to survive all 4 waves. She is on the lookout for her younger brother. She has a strong conviction that being on your own is the best way to survive. That is until she meets mysterious Evan, who may be her only hope in rescuing her brother. But can she trust him?
The novel starts strong and invests you in with its waves of destruction and psychological tension. The book has all the desirable tropes of a YA dystopian thriller. It also has a baffling romance, SWAT action, struggle to survive and “people in charge” who we cannot trust. Would recommend it to tweens and early teens wanting to read more books like The Maze Runner or Ender’s Game.
11. The Testing By Joelle Charbonneau
Post-apocalyptic YA dystopian novel about friendship and goals
Conspiracy, friendship and survival themes collide in Joelle Charbonneau’s The Testing. Although The Testing series relies on familiar and formulaic elements of dystopian literature, it does get an A for adding freshness to a redundant storyline.
What The Testing is about: The “Seven Stage War” has left the Earth in shambles. The United Commonwealth is striving to rebuild everything and they know that the future lies in the hands of youth. Here instead of a maze, they have created an elite program for the best and the brightest, that you can become part of after going through rigorous testing that can be deadly and brute. Malencia “Cia” Vale, a recent high school graduate, is one of those lucky ones. While leaving for the Test, her father, also a chosen, bids her with advice: Be careful who you trust, Cia. You do that and everything will be okay.
I adored the characterization of Cia very much. She is not a powerful ninja, but a simple, down-to-earth girl just like us who has faith in herself. She loves to help others but is not naive enough to trust everyone. To prove her leadership abilities, she goes through written, social and survival tests before the ultimate final. She only trusts her childhood friend Tomas who offered her an alliance. But since its a YA novel, there is a sublayer of romance that she entangles in. To survive, Cia will have to choose: love without truth or life without trust?
If you’re looking to grab a dystopian YA novel along the lines of The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games or The Divergent series but can stand on its own, then The Testing awaits. The cliffhanger at the end will pique your interest in the sequel.
12. Across the Universe by Beth Revis
Sci-fi dystopian mystery for young adults, set in a starship
If your draw to The Maze Runner was its intriguing mystery, deception and lies, then Across The Universe will definitely pull you in with its whodunit twists. It is like Agatha Christie meets dystopia.
What’s ‘Across The Universe’ about? The novel tells the story of Amy, a teenager cryogenically frozen aboard a generation ship, named Godspeed. Due to overpopulation on the Earth, they are being transported to a new planet 300 years in the future. But when somebody tries to murder Amy, she wakes up early from her cryogenic hibernation. No, she doesn’t have amnesia like Thomas. She is the only teenager trapped on a starship governed by a weird set of rules under Eldest’s leadership. His successor Elder and Amy must work together to unravel the mysteries of Godspeed to have a chance of survival until their final destination.
I was impressed by how the author grounded this science-fiction into realism and made it believable. However, there are occasions when science would feel like a fantasy. Ripe with all the elements of a page-turner, the book had me invested in its plot, people and the ship. Across the Universe is an exciting dystopian series featuring a coming of age theme like that of ‘The Maze Runner’.
Trigger warning: Attempted rape scene
13. 5 to 1 by Holly Bodger
A realistic dystopia about the gender imbalance
Another unique YA dystopian novella set in future India — yes, India, a dystopian premise rarely seen in the mainstream. Not just that, the story is told through two POVs; one in verse and the other in prose which gives it a magical touch. As for why this book is on the list, it follows the same concept of ‘Tests’ and struggles for freedom as was in The Maze Runner — albeit very different and social which provides it a dimension of realism rather than science fiction or fantasy.
What is 5 to 1 about? Set in the near future, the power has shifted towards women in the male-dominated society of India. For every single girl, there are five boys available. With this stark gender imbalance, women have now become a precious commodity and five boys must compete in a test to marry a girl as a winning prize but what if they don’t want to?
5 to 1 draws its inspiration from the grim realities of female infanticide and the declining population of them in India. An evocative dystopia with memorable characters and realistically no romance. It absorbs you in its social fabric. The cliffhanger at the end left me a tad bit of nowhere (not gonna spoil it).
It’s a short and quick read. A perfect choice if you are having a diverse book reading challenge or looking for a unique dystopian book experience.
14. The Cage by Meghan Shepherd
A sci-fi dystopia with a paranormal romance
If you wanted to have more intense romance in The Maze Runner, then try The Cage series by New York Times bestselling author Meghan Shepherd. It has a similar striking premise where Thomas wakes up in an elevator, terrified and confused, not remembering or knowing what’s going on. The protagonist in The Cage experiences the same eerie feelings except that this time it’s a girl waking up in a human zoo and that in a space controlled by super-intelligent aliens.
What’s The Cage about? Four cherry-picked teenagers, each having a dark secret, join Cora Mason in the Cage. Confused and clueless, they slowly begin to trust each other in their plan to escape. But when a mysterious and handsome young guard appears, they realize that their captors aren’t from the Earth. What ensues next is a paranormal love triangle and a deadly struggle to escape.
Despite its slow start, the story kept me intrigued and entertained enough with its impeccable prose, excellent world-building and character development. You might want to try some of the author’s other works, once you are through it.
15. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
A dystopian tale about schoolboys on a deserted island
Chances are that you might have already read this book. It’s a classic dystopian novel and high school staple that delivers a didactic message with a satirical undertone. Nevertheless, 21 publishers rejected Nobel Prize-winning author William Golding’s debut novel before it was first published in 1954, for a reason that you’ll see once you start flipping through it.
What’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ about? The plot of Lord of the Flies revolves around a group of schoolboys – all strangers – shipwrecked on an island that appears to be no less than a paradise. Incredibly enchanted and grateful for not having adults with them, they begin to explore this exotic land and establish their own rules. In this wake, conflict emerges between the boys for leadership roles. What started out as a utopian dream develops into a dystopian nightmare — dark, unsettling and sinister.
Truly exciting and magnificent in every aspect, Lord of the Flies explores the inevitability of human violence, struggle for power and survival. If you’re a teenager and interested in a mystery adventure told through a dark but subtle dystopian lens, having believable characters and an intriguing plot, then go ahead and pick up this timeless classic.
You made it to the end of the list of 15 Best Dystopian Books Like The Maze Runner. In your search for similar novels, one or more of the books above should keep you busy with their suspense, poignant narrative and mind-blowing adventures.
If you have book suggestions to add to this list, let me know via comments below.
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