Coming off the heels of my last Stranger Things book review, I got a chance to pick up a review copy of Stranger Things: Runaway Max. Max Mayfield was a character introduced in the second season of the titular Netflix series. I liked her character but felt she suffered from a lack of screen time and development. My hope was that a book focusing exclusively on her perspective would give the character the depth I felt she deserved.
I, like a lot of people, was taken aback when Stranger Things first aired on Netflix in 2016. This kitsch, '80s inspired horror show turned out to have a mastery of storytelling mixed with a furiously talented cast. For anyone who missed it, the basic premise follows the residents of Hawkins, Indiana, a podunk town like any other. One day, a boy goes missing, and as his friends and family search for him, they uncover government conspiracies, psychic children, and terrifying monsters hidden just beyond the edges of their town. The second season kept the ball running with an overarching villain and two key additions to the cast: Max and her step brother Billy.
Runaway Max picks up this story, following along with the events of the second season but from the first-person perspective of Max. First-person narrative can be a tricky perspective to work in. If it isn’t handled well, a full novel of it can feel tedious or gimmicky, but the author, Brenna Yovanoff, manages to keep a tight pace by keeping Max's inner monologue to the point. The book also slogs off needless dead weight by not bothering to rehash events from the show, wisely assuming that anyone reading remembers what happened and doesn't need a word-for-word recounting. Protracted dialogue scenes from the show are turned into brief recountings from Max.
I had one primary hope for this book: that it would get me to care more about Max Mayfield. Yovanoff is able to execute exactly that by refusing to shy away from the dark elements that surround Max's life. Her ruined home life with an abusive father and older brother is laid out center stage and makes up the majority of her struggles without every becoming gratuitous.
Unfortunately, near the end of the book, some of the cracks begin to show in choosing to follow the events of the second season and the constraints that come with telling a story in a world that isn't finished. The last few chapters feel rushed, simply because Max plays a big part in the second season's finale. There isn’t much new information that can be gleaned from retelling those events from Max’s perspective. The author made the right choice moving through these parts quickly, but one or two more chapters would have been welcome. The other issue - telling a story in an incomplete world - meant that a few parts of the story had to be left open ended enough that future seasons can still tell their own stories. The most frustrating example being the relationship with Max and Billy, which is the core of the climax. Their relationship at the end has changed, but I wouldn't say it has resolved.
It’s tough to look at a tie-in book like Stranger Things: Runaway Max as a standalone piece. Someone unfamiliar with Stranger Things couldn’t start here. The book really operates as a companion piece to season 2. That being said, I'd almost call it a requirement if you're a fan of the series. I left season 2 not caring about Max - not because her actor did a poor job or because she was poorly written. I didn't feel like I understood her the way I did the rest of the cast. She was a mystery, and Runaway Max went a long way to establishing who Max is and why she matters. With season 3 now available, I highly recommend picking up Runaway Max to refresh your memory on what happened in season 2 and to give you more insight into a character that I suspect is going to play a big part in things to come.
Creative Team: Brenna Yovanoff (Author)
Publisher: Penguin Random House
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