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Old 28th Jan 2009, 16:23   #1
Colyngbourne
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Default Patrick Ness: Chaos Walking trilogy

Patrick Ness won the Guardian Children's Fiction prize with The Knife of Never Letting Go this year, one of those titles that hangs over the narrative like a Chekhovian gun: it emerges and re-emerge as the drama becomes more intense and heads towards a pretty nifty cliff-hanger ending (primed for the first sequel due in May). ‘Intense’ covers the physical content of the book as well as the sci-fi-based ingenuity on which it rests: The Knife... is set among frontier farming communities in the New World where a Germ has spread amongst the population, causing everyone to hear everyone’s thoughts bar those of females, a condition termed The Noise. This inescapable unbearable racket of brain-fuzz is occasionally represented on the page by patches of graffitied, scrambly jottings, sometimes a repeated phrase or a melee of random thoughts. No-one escapes the Noise, not even the animals (sheep endearingly bleat “sheep!” and little else) but a boy on the cusp of adulthood (and its imminent secret Initiation ceremony) discovers that outside his swamp-encircled community of men, there are others who can hear the Noise but not be heard: something unknown to him – a girl. Todd is soon on the run alongside Viola, despatched by his adoptive fathers to warn others of some great danger and carrying with him a book containing the last words of his mother.

The book concerns itself entirely with the young people’s flight and gradual coming to understand one another: Todd finds it impossible to ‘read’ Viola’s opinions since he cannot hear her Noise: the condition he bears means there is no privacy in the world but for those who can subdue and master their minds; there is only a limited framework for relationships when every thought and wondering is laid bare. The danger that Todd and Viola run from is savage in its purpose and lays low all that Todd holds dear, pursuing them along road and river, through animal herds of elephantine proportion and catching up all bystanders and helpers in its path. The pace doesn’t let up and Todd is never far from the knife which will determine his future and his means of becoming a true grown man, nor far from uncovering the truth about the Germ and the spread of death which was its secondary fall-out.

Why couldn’t I give it the five star award? It is written with Sawyer-esque slang with the atmosphere of the Deep South and the wasteland of The Road – crocs in the swamps, random strangers fishing by riversides – and echoes of The Night of the Hunter, drifting down-river on boats, hiding from a pursuing evil, betrayed by the simplest of things (in this case, single thoughts shouting louder of their presence and location, than a bunch of flags and sirens). Todd is functionally illiterate (which partly hinders his understanding of the appalling secrets that his male-only community has striven to keep from him) and so the text is peppered with rather irritating alternative spellings a la Riddley Walker – direkshun, partickalar, speckalashun – but other similarly constructed words are left intact - contagion, serration – and there is no sustained logic to the way that this slipping of language has worked. And so it does have more than a speck of gimmick or affectation about it. I did find some of the continuous travelling a little repetitious, and the building-up of the “knife” and its purpose a little too drawn out, especially in Todd’s struggles to overcome his instincts and the definitions of manhood that he is being tempted toward. And I imagine that readers of a YA hue would find the companionable “talking” dog, Manchee, part of the great attraction of Todd’s journey but again, although this relationship deepens and matures movingly, it almost seemed a deliberate “endearing sidekick” choice and limited in its amusement (if not in its sentimental moments). Far more frustrating were the moments of deferring "truth-telling" when Todd's surrogate father Ben or some other kindly adult is on the verge of telling him "It's important that you know...." and then interruptions or danger sweeps the moment aside: artificially shunting the big reveal to the end of the book. Similarly, the reader knows that it is only vague pride/shame that prevents Todd from allowing Viola to read his mother's journal until near the end of the story: this would have helped them immensely in understanding their predicament and the danger in which they are set, and so it seems like authorial holding-back that is slightly unrealistic.

Like most YA novels these days, this is set to be a trilogy. It’s a good start at a very clever dystopia with an OMG end that was incredibly satisfying. Todd is learning about all the compromises, defeats, disappointments and losses that adulthood contains but I would hope for less of the crowded pages (this was 477 pages) and more focus on the interior as well as the outward journey to manhood.

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Old 28th Jan 2009, 17:02   #2
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Default Re: Patrick Ness: The Knife of Never Letting Go

Nice review, Col. I concur. It was a decent roller-coaster read of a YA novel but it wasn't perfect. from me.

I really liked the novelty and originality of The Noise, and that Todd could hear his dog's thoughts. Also liked the setting of Prentisstown.

Less satisfying, I could see all the similarities thrown into the mix - The Road, Huckleberry Finn, The Handmaid's Tale, Ridley Walker, Curious Incident, Mortal Engines with heroic kids on the run, and any Western with hardworking folks on the homestead. The cliffhanger ending left me a bit disappointed - I wasn't looking to have to pick up Book 2 (and, presumably Book 3) to get a bit of resolution.

I see from amazon that Book 2, The Ask And The Answer, is due out in May 2009.
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Old 5th Jan 2010, 12:19   #3
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Default Re: Patrick Ness: The Knife of Never Letting Go

Quote:
Originally Posted by paddyjoe View Post
I see from amazon that Book 2, The Ask And The Answer, is due out in May 2009.
This has just won the children's prize for the Costa 2009, so I had better make that my next official read.
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Old 5th Jan 2010, 14:21   #4
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Default Re: Patrick Ness: The Knife of Never Letting Go

Yes, and it came out last September (though the paperback is out in May).
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Old 5th Jan 2010, 15:37   #5
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Default Re: Patrick Ness: The Knife of Never Letting Go

I think it's the other way round, John - because I have a paperback copy I got this autumn sometime and it was out in hardback last spring. Or possibly it's being re-done in a fresh edition ready for the final part Monsters of Men which is out in May this year.
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Old 9th Jan 2010, 12:03   #6
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Default Re: Patrick Ness: The Knife of Never Letting Go

Battle not with monsters lest you become a monster and if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you

So said Nietzche, quoted in Patrick Ness’s second of his Chaos Walking trilogy. This timely reading chimes with the finale of the Tennant Dr Who years last week, with the Doctor realising the wrong he has done with his powers, and the Master’s mind warped and destroyed by looking into the Time Vortex as a young boy.

For Ness’s central characters, Todd and Viola, the dangers are those of being overcome by the exigencies of war and the crumbling ethical standards of a people cowed by fear and insecurity. The book chronicles their struggle and failure to find the best place in which to stand in this war. The hostilities seems to rise from one man – Mayor Prentiss - and his focused determination to rule and to subjugate those who refuse his rule with torture, slavery and imprisonment, or by sheer hypnotic power. Complicating the usual factors of warfare is Noise – the thoughts of men on this colony planet can be heard by all humanoids but those of women cannot. Honest rebellion and deceit are impossibilities when all thoughts are common knowledge and when a man can send a powerful thought slicing through your head or bludgeoning your mental self into pulp.

A fascist dictatorship arises with torture chambers, curfews, the segregation of sexes, the branding of humans with an immoveable metal ring for security’s sake. Alongside this runs the theoretically more moral terrorist resistance movement, the Answer, capable of using people just as callously to bring about their aims of toppling Prentiss. Given only these two options Todd and Viola are separated and their paths, different yet equal, lead them into actions that are pretty damning. In effect Todd becomes a war criminal, working at the right hand of Prentiss and groomed to be his successor; Viola seems to be less culpable – she works as a healer for the Answer but any chance she gets, she is trying to find her beloved Todd, ignoring her duty or assistance of others in favour of pursuing her chance to find him. Both characters are hard to like: Viola’s voice is clear but stubborn – “irritating” says one character of her – and Todd is punchy and inflammatory, forever issuing meaningless threats - “Don’t you dare hurt her” and beating up on Prentiss’s son, Davy, whenever provoked.

Viola is impatient and demanding, and imagines that her off-world friends whose spaceships are due to arrive within weeks, will be very different from the humans she is encountering now –
Quote:
My ships are up there somewhere. People who might’ve been able to help us, no, who would have helped us if I could’ve contacted them. Simone Watkin and Bradley Tench, good people, smart people, who would have stopped all this stupidity and the explosions and –
But if The Ask and the Answer tells the reader anything, it is that through circumstance and manipulation, through appeasement and hope of control, most people become willing adherents of one cause or another. Very few are as Corinne, the selfless ‘healer’ who stays with the sick and wounded, never losing sight of her own particular path through the bloodshed.

Viola or Todd are caught up in opposing armies and the levels of violence and oppression become normative. Viola frowns and sighs and grumbles about the little she can do (ignoring her abilities as a trained healer) and reverts to trusting the only figurehead she has, the leader of the rebel Answer, Mistress Coyle. Todd brutalises several hundred of the Spackle, the humanoid native species to the planet, driving them as starving slaves, and standing by whilst brutal torture is inflicted on both human women and men in order to reveal the whereabouts of the resistance. He is aware of his failings – “I’ve done terrible things, Viola” – but seems to consider that he only needs Viola’s forgiveness.

Viola believes that they can make their wrongs right by trying to save the world, by picking themselves up and doing the right thing. This is projected as a real world dilemma: what do you do if you are in the grip of a tyrant who enforces or enjoins you to acts which will cause suffering? In reluctant obedience to tyrannical rule, are you culpable because you carry out your orders? Are you innocent because you love your girlfriend whilst you do it, or if you numb your mind whilst you brutalise another being? A grand gesture in the book is that Todd is deemed incapable of killing someone (in a particular instant, we understand, rather than a prolonged death from starvation, hard labour and agonised flesh-cutting shackles as he inflicts on the Spackle): he is not counted as a grown Man by Prentiss unless he does so. His killing of a Spackle in The Knife of Never Letting Go, though he regrets it, doesn’t count to either Prentiss or himself apparently; Viola has killed to save Todd’s life, and is implicated by membership in every death of the Answer’s bombing campaign but feels she and Todd should not kill in cold blood. Given the chance to eliminate the Big Bad Prentiss, Todd cannot pull the trigger. Once the book’s cliffhanger doomsday scenario arrives - of Prentiss’s army in disarray, the Answer army marching on the city, and a revenging Spackle army appearing in their thousands out of nowhere - Todd is only capable of releasing the Mayor from his bonds and allowing him to take control again; and Viola can only return to the leadership of the woman who has manipulated and lied to her.

Prentiss tells Todd of his long-term awareness of how special Todd is:

Quote:
“I’ve been watching you, Todd. The boy who can’t kill another man. The boy who’d risk his own life to save his beloved Viola. The boy who felt so guilty at the horrible things he was doing that the tried to shut off all feeling. The boy who still felt every pain, every twitch of hurt he saw on the face of the women he banded.”
He leans down closer to my face. “The boy who refused to lose his soul.”

“But you suffer for them, Todd.” His voice is softer now, almost tender. “You’re your own worst enemy, punishing yourself far more than I could ever hope to. Men have Noise and the way they handle it is to make themselves just a little bit dead, but you, even when you want to, you can’t. More than any man I’ve ever met, Todd, you feel.”
…”You’re the one I couldn’t break, Todd. the one who wouldn’t fall. The one who stays innocent not matter the blood on his hands…”
I call that hogwash and it makes Todd slightly more unlikely and unlikeable. Flawed protagonists are one thing – these two cede control to the warmongering adults because as yet they cannot provide the real answer, but Todd is not innocent. Some individuals would have suffered and died rather than inflict pain on another person; no-one can feel the actual pain – either physical or mental or emotional - of the person they are torturing; no-one gets away with being so pure, when they have blood on their hands. This status as a saviour “son-designate” to Prentiss is not one that involves self-denial or sacrifice. “We are the choices we make” is uttered as the gnomic platitude of the series – Dumbledore says something similar to Harry Potter – but it is never followed through either in Rowling or here (as yet – the final book might show us the follow-through of Todd’s actions). We can see that Todd in particular is damaged goods but the plotline seems to be setting him up as the hero for the last book, with Viola as the quasi-leader of the resistance. Conflict is messy and dishonest and full of nasty compromises in which someone or other will be hurt or damaged, yet these two have some destiny to fulfil in the final book of the series. I hope there is real damage and regret, and not the Harry-Potter aftermath where casting Unforgiveable curses is waved aside as a mere nothing, with no impact or stain on the personality.

And for all gender plays a part – the mental separation of men and women which leads to gender apartheid for a large section of the book, there is the barest mention of sex and how men react to being deprived of their womenfolk or female company, and vice-versa. When Prentiss’ army arrive in Haven to take it over, they are an army of men who have been on the march for several weeks but it is only in the last few pages that there are reports of abuse and atrocities against the women.

Motivation – vibrayshun: Ness continues the somewhat puzzling naïve spelling when the narrative is in illiterate Todd’s hands. Various ‘-tion’ and ‘-sion’ words are reformed with ‘shun’, but not all of them are, which makes the whole thing a bit affected and pointless.

I prefer the dual narration in this book – different typefaces for Viola and Todd – which doubles the insight the reader has into motivations and personalities. The pace is terrific – 500+ pages are a breeze – and the action and insidious easing into abhorrent behaviour beautifully written. As an insight into the corruption of a people, into how oppressive regimes arise and people go along with them, this is a good book, but I cannot love it. The Puritan/mid-West flavour of New World has dissipated since the first book – no herds of outsize roaming ruminants now – and we are initially in a world with a hint of Salem witch-trials which quickly generalises into Anytown-Anyforest. Yet another cliff-hanger closes the book which is unsatisfactory and I hope for resolution in the ethical outcome of this story.

Generally, a cracking good read but unlike many, I am not keen on the central characters’ handling of their moral position (or at least the author's handling of their position), which I hope will be resolved in the final book.

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Old 14th Oct 2010, 11:44   #7
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Default Monsters of Men

Monsters of Men

Does war make monsters of men, or are they monsters to begin with? Does it make men out of monsters, or does only finding the peace do that?

Chaos has been walking for a few years in Patrick Ness’s trilogy – the chaos of war, of ethnic cleansing and the ethics of colonisation; the chaos of how morality inserts itself into the mechanics of warfare, how the personal can become political; how individualism can be a curse or a blessing; and how communities engaged organically with each other’s needs can begin to thrive. Ness has chosen a wide platter of juicy themes to serve up in his books. Piled on top are issues about feminism, communication and understanding, trust and loyalty and obedience, fatherhood, racial identity, revenge and guilt. Quivering temptingly on top of all these is the quietly pulsating teen-engaging theme of romantic love and devotion.

That all of these ideas are touched and some explored in greater depth, is to the credit of the unique story that Ness has crafted: a frontier world where different colonists are vying for power and control over the land and the native species, confusingly, known to themselves as the Land. Ratcheting up the tension is the curious biological feature of the planet, a virus which renders the thoughts of all males internally audible to both the males and females. No privacy, exposure of thought or plotting, and the power struggles of attempting to control one’s own or others’ thoughts all function as an overarching character with a force of its own. The natural human instincts to deceive and hide and to use the mind in exertions against another are faced with a culture that holistically enriches and shares its thought processes to the happiness and gain of all. Kind of like the Borg, but with Avatar-like peace and harmony as its modal theme.

Not that there’s much peace and love going down for the bulk of the 603 pages of Monsters of Men: war is breaking out in every encampment, from the dangerous certainties of Mayor Prentiss and his opposition Mistress Coyle, from the wavering new colonists Simone and Brandon who have just arrived on the planet, from the native Spackle armies making terrorist raids on the human settlements, and most particularly, in Todd and Viola’s own natures. Both have committed crimes, war-crimes, through choices that were not always about the better good. Viola allows revenge to become personal, Todd learns the exciting delights of how to make people do your bidding and the thrill of bloodthirsty war.

Quote:
“I’d have done the same, Viola,” Todd says, one more time.
And I know he’s saying nothing but the truth.
But as he hugs me again before I leave, I can’t help but think it over and over.
If this is what Todd and I would do for each other, does that make us right?
Or does it make us dangerous?
Strange then, that with all the above going on, this book becomes laboured and dull. The single voice of the first novel becomes a duo in Book Two, and now a trio, with the single tortured survivor of Spackle genocide - #1017 – inputting his own story and considerations. The war events and peace negotiations become quickly repetitive, both Mayor Prentiss and Mistress Coyle behave predictably (to the surprise of Todd and Viola) and even Mayor Prentiss’s final resolution lacks the impact such a great villain deserved. Both Todd and Viola, not terribly likeable at the best of times, especially when the reader is being repeatedly told that they are the only hope for the world, become less endearing through this book, and the ending amounts to a cop-out in my book, though one that has the fans punching the air with delight.

What is of final interest to me, as a reader, are questions like, where does the guilt go? We are told many times that Todd cannot kill, but it is quite evident he had killed and in numbers; he is a concentration camp guard; he is the underling who gives the order to attack, who by the power of a virtual rhetoric can turn a man’s will against himself. The Mayor is the extreme form of this, and logically, calmly, accepts his lot: he is far more intriguing a character, however malicious his motives. For Viola, the war and its peace are still personal – in the end, anger and revenge still clouds her dealings with a character who injured her mistakenly. Of more interest to me, is the character that the Spackle call The Source and how that person is the key to the peace, not the teenagers in love, always scrabbling to see each other, calling each other’s name and panicking. In Book Two, their doubt of each other and culpable actions within the warring human factions made for a far more realistic and difficult trajectory of their relationship.

The plot moves slowly and goes over much of the same ground that was covered in the previous book. Points of view overlap frequently every few pages, as the narration passes from one character to another; the different fonts for different voices helps a little but if I ever see another

BOOM!

or

VIOLA!

again, it will be too soon. This is a coherent trilogy with a great deal of imagination and drive behind the story and the characters, and it explores well the motivations of warfare and peace accords, of human manipulation and the desire to retain power and control rather than share it; but in terms of content, it is the more laboured of the three, less a Knife of Letting Go and more ‘blunt instrument’ reminding us of the Mayor’s undeniable treachery and inhumanity, and not coaxing us to explore the real innards of that complex man’s mind. We would need the voice of the Land to do that.


½
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