Sunday, July 7, 2013

This Knife Dulls by the Trilogy's End: Chaos Walking

The Knife of Never Letting Go

by Patrick Ness

Published by Candlewick Press

5 Out of 5 Stars

In a world where we're bombarded with technology, our senses are often overwhelmed by the amount of noise and it's becoming increasingly difficult to find true quiet anymore (especially since most of us just plug into our computer or iPod as soon as it is quiet). A constant stream of sound and images feed us information, prod us toward rampant consumerism, and entertain us. I've become increasingly aware that many of my students seem uncomfortable with simple quiet--always wanting some sort of noise to help them concentrate and focus. It's sad that our world has become one in which quiet is such a rare and undervalued commodity. And that, according to Patrick Ness, is the inspiration for The Knife of Never Letting Go.

Inventive and unlike anything I've ever read, The Knife of Never Letting Go is billed as a young adult dystopian but there's very little that's young adult about it other than a 13 year old protagonist. In fact, a lot of the language is violent, graphic, and brutal by young adult standards, but it has to be to capture the world that has been created by Ness.

Todd Hewitt is only days away from becoming a man by Prentisstown standards. Prentisstown is a town on New World, a planet that is being "settled" by the people of earth. What's unusual about Prentisstown, though, is that it's a town that consists entirely of men. The women were killed twelve years earlier when the Spackle, the indigenous alien race, utilized germ warfare in an attempt to win the war against the pioneers. The men, however, were not entirely immune to this germ. Instead of killing them, it made every man's inner-thoughts (both verbal and visual) visible to those around him. There are no secrets in the Noise. As a means of coping, some men turn to drink, others attempt to run away, and some kill themselves. Life here is bleak under the totalitarian rule of Mayor Prentiss and the bizarre radical teachings of the holy man, Aaron. As far as Todd knows, Prentisstown is the only place on the planet.

As Todd nears his 13th birthday, he finds something in the swamp that shouldn't exist--silence. Shortly after discovering this peculiarity and unable to find its source, he's forced to flee Prentisstown and go on the run with only his dog, a knapsack of supplies, a hunting knife, and a book written for him by his mother. To tell you the how and why for all of this would be to ruin the suspense that drives the entire novel. Todd struggles for survival and begins to unravel the lies that he's been told his entire life. During his journey, he discovers the truth about New World and about Prentisstown.

The novel is told in first person stream of consciousness, which really works because it's like we as readers are able to "hear" Todd's Noise just as the other inhabitants of Prentisstown would. It also means that we learn as Todd learns and, as his mind shies away to avoid truths that he can't yet accept, information is sometimes withheld from us. In addition, some of the words are written in dialect to help better capture how Todd sounds. There are some unusual narrative techniques used throughout, such as a different font to indicate the Noise of different individuals and animals (that's right--even animals have Noise; I particularly enjoyed the depiction of Todd's dog Manchee) as Todd encounters them. Instead of finding them gimmicky, I thought it a very effective way of visually demonstrating the intrusion of other people's thoughts into one's own.

In some ways, the novel reminded me of the television series Firefly, but only in that these space travelers are the new pioneers. While they have a lot of new technology, the struggle for survival is a very real one and never certain. The novel ends with one hell of a cliffhanger and I find myself for the first time in a long time wanting to dive right into the second novel of the series.

The Ask and the Answer

by Patrick Ness

Published by Candlewick Press

4 Out of 5 Stars 

**Some Spoilers Ahead for Those Who Haven't Read the First Novel**

I didn't so much read the first book in this series, The Knife of Never Letting Go, as inhaled it. Original and disturbing, Ness is not afraid to take some risks as he tells the story of Todd Hewitt, a boy about to become a man in Prentisstown--a town inhabited only by men. As we read, we find out that Todd lives on a colony planet so distant from Earth that it takes decades to get there. Upon arrival, the first colonists went to war with the indigenous inhabitants, the Spackle. In a desperate effort to defeat the invaders, the Spackle release a germ that kills all of the women. The men survive, but with a strange side-effect: they can hear each other's internal monologue. At least this is the story Todd was always told, but when he discovers a real girl in the swamp Todd is forced to flee for his life and learns that everything he thought was true is a lie.

The Ask and the Answer picks up where The Knife of Never Letting Go left off. Todd and Viola, whose uneasy truce forged a devoted friendship, are separated when Mayor Prentiss (the antagonist from the first novel) names himself President, quarantines the women from the men, and establishes martial law in New Prentisstown. As Mayor Prentiss exerts his power, a female rebel force known as the Answer rises against him, and Viola finds herself swept up by their cause. Meanwhile, Todd is forced to do President Prentiss's bidding in order to keep Viola safe. He's put in charge of managing the enslaved Spackle workforce being used to build the New Prentisstown envisioned by the President.

What is so fascinating about the novel is how Ness explores the brainwashing and mind games employed by each side as they use Viola and Todd as expendable pawns in their quest for victory. Viola struggles with the terroristic tactics used by the Answer against innocent civilians in the name of their cause, while Todd is forced to face his shame in killing a Spackle in the first novel as he witnesses the dehumanizing treatment of the thinking and feeling alien race. As Viola and Todd try to navigate the labyrinthine truths, loyalties, and beliefs that are relics from a war that occurred before either of them were born, they begin to question themselves and their trust in each other. This psychological complexity is heightened by the fact that the reader still isn’t sure who the bad guys and who the good guys are—if, in fact, there are any good guys. There are no easy answers and Ness forces readers to think through the complex issues of war, justifiable violence, and racism.

Monsters Of Men

by Patrick Ness

Published by Candlewick Press

3 Out of 5 Stars

If you read my reviews of The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer, you'll find that I was a smitten kitten with the Chaos Walking series. In the carbon copy world of young adult literature, these are inventive books with powerful themes resonating throughout. I have been anticipating the moment when I would finish the last book in the trilogy, expecting to savor the return to Todd and Viola's world. So what effin' happened that led to a tepid 3 star rating? I'm still trying to figure it out.

Maybe it was series fatigue or maybe I waited too long between reading books 2 and 3 (I hate getting locked into series books, so that is a possibility). For whatever reason, Monsters of Men never grabbed me in the way the first two books did. It felt repetitive. War with the Spackle, conflict between Mayor Prentiss and Mistress Coyle, Todd and Viola don't know what to do, and round and round it goes. Each time I picked up the book, I felt like it was Groundhog Day--I could have sworn I read the same damn thing yesterday. The war is somewhat anticlimactic and I never felt any real tension. I'm rather out of sorts about this because I feel as though I somehow let down the book instead of the book letting me down. Did I miss something? Is there something I'm just not getting? These are the thoughts that plague me because I wanted, nay, needed to love this book. And I just didn't. Todd and Viola's angst over being separated is irritating to me because I could not for the life of me understand why they insisted on being apart ("Just walk your ass up the damn hill, Todd," I kept encouraging him throughout, but he never listened), Mayor Prentiss doesn't seem like that big of a bad ass threat, and the one twist the novel is relying on is fairly predictable.

Despite this, I liked the addition of the narration from 1017's point of view. Told in the language of the indigenous people of New World, Ness does a good job of making the voice seem alien and foreign. These chapters are somewhat difficult to read in terms of adjusting to the syntax and invented phrases, but it added to my ability to believe in the Spackle as a separate sentient species from humans. Also, the questions raised (is there morality in war, what makes a terrorist, how do we know when we can trust our leaders, is violence ever justified) are all complex and worthy of our attention. Ness skillfully asks these questions without glorifying war nor necessarily vilifying it, which makes this an above average young adult read.

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