The Ask and The Answer. 2009. 519 pages.
Monsters of Men. 2010. 603 pages.
This is what I had heard about the Chaos Walking trilogy before I read it: rave reviews; general warnings about heartbreaking plot turns; and recently when that A to Z meme went around, several people picked The Ask and The Answer as their favorite sequel. I had kept myself very spoiler-free about the plot and so I had a vague idea that it was a YA dystopian novel that started with a boy who lived in a town full of men who could hear each other’s thoughts.
For those who haven’t read the books, the following review – which covers all three books – will have some spoilers, so you may want to keep away. Another thing you may want to know up-front: though I was a fan of the first book, I was disappointed overall with the trilogy.
I had read in a review of The Ask and the Answer (from the blog, Estella’s Revenge) that the three overarching themes for the books were: flight, tyranny and war. The book of “flight”, The Knife of Never Letting Go, is certainly unrelenting suspense as Todd and Viola flee the dangers of Todd’s village toward the promise of a town called Haven. As both characters have never explored this world before, it is not only a novel of the chase but also a novel of discovery. Even while facing terrible and incredibly sad situations, Todd and Viola’s journey unveils some great world-building on Ness’ part. It was interesting to see how the different communities dealt with the fact that the men’s thoughts could be heard but not the women’s. The thoughts (the Noise) of the animals added some needed lightness (most of the time).
I was deeply engaged with The Knife of Never Letting Go, and cried a few times. The one detraction I had about the first book was I thought the action scenes – especially the one at the end – were not very good. Ness’ writing style in these books involved the heavy use of sentence fragments separated by dashes to indicate events happening quickly and simultaneously. I came to hate this style as the trilogy went on. Very occasionally, it was effective, such as when a likable character dies in Viola’s arms in The Ask and The Answer. But I wish it had been used more sparingly elsewhere.
There are a lot of strengths to this trilogy: I liked the world-building, such as how the Spackle (the native alien species) were uniquely suited for their world, and I liked the unrepentant moral complexity of the plot. The main characters, under great duress, do some terrible things. Almost no one can resist participating in the horrible cycle of violence that threatens to destroy life on their planet. I also appreciated that the third book expanded beyond Todd and Viola’s perspective and gave us the perspective of one of the Spackle.
As I said earlier, I was deeply engaged while reading the first book. I was on tenterhooks about the fate of Todd and Viola. That feeling largely dissipated while reading The Ask and The Answer and it never fully came back. To be blunt, I think the books are too long. I’m not afraid of tackling tomes, but the second and third books of this trilogy really dragged. Part of it was Ness’ writing style, but also there was a repetitiveness in the plot and in the characters’ interactions with each other. On the one hand, I get that Ness is trying to convey the exhaustion of tyranny and war, but on the other hand, there were elements that became tiresome. Whether it was Todd’s constant bristling at the Mayor, or Viola’s constant bristling at Mistress Coyne, or general shoutiness among all the characters, I felt that I was on rinse-and-repeat for much of the trilogy.
While I found the Noise a fascinating concept at first, I got a little bored when it shaded into mind-control issues. This is probably pet-peeve territory, but when characters were attacking each other with their thoughts, I disliked having to accept at face value that character A had more of the “Force” than character B at that moment. I understood what was going on in the scene generally speaking, but kind of zoned out on the details of each thrust and parry.
I also was not a fan of the character of Mayor Prentiss. He was more interesting as a powerful rumor in the first book than he was as the main villain of books two and three. Ness attempted to give Prentiss some interesting layers, and also added some lesser villains to Prentiss’ opposition, just to add to the moral complexity. But Prentiss’ indestructibility and his relentless cultivation of the recalcitrant Todd as a protegee / substitute son stretched my credulity. I was quite disappointed that his character wasn’t offed in the second book. And while I still possessed a low-grade investment in the fate of Todd and Viola, it was nothing compared to the fear I felt on their behalf during the first book.
When I finished Monsters of Men, I mainly felt relieved that I was finally done with the book. I also decided that I should wait a really long time before picking up another YA dystopian novel, or any YA novel really. If I wasn’t pulled into what is arguably one of the most critically praised YA dystopian series, then maybe this genre – aimed for this age group – is not for me.
Excerpts from other reviews:
Books, Time and Silence – “In Todd and Viola it has heroes you root for with every ounce of your being. They are far from perfect and it is their self-abasement, their doubt, which makes them so likable. And the point that Todd and many other characters come back to time and again is that it’s not how you fall, but how you get back up again that counts.”
Musings of a Bookish Kitty – “What I will say is that the trilogy is all at once a coming of age story and a commentary about humanity in all its ugliness as well as beauty. Through his characters, Patrick Ness brings the ambiguity of morality to the forefront.”
Rhapsody in Books – “The author takes what is basically a one-note idea and creates a dark fugue of complex characterization and surprising plot turns. There are such moments of deep tenderness and poignancy intermixed with visceral cruelty that it can take your breath away. This is an exciting, edge-of-your-seat book that repeatedly impresses you by the author’s skill for conjuring up the unexpected.” (Review of The Ask and The Answer)