A couple of weeks ago, I spoke about the awesomeness that was the book The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness. Brilliant, I thought. Presumably, if you’re reading this review, you will have already read The Knife and won’t mind a few spoilers, the main one being that the ending is not a happy one. With that understanding, let’s talk about the sequel to The Knife, called The Ask and the Answer. In this book, we see a deeper theme begin to emerge as we see certain patterns of behavior repeating: killing and vengeance. It is the beginnings of a treatise on the complicated and brutal nature of war and an intense portrayal of its effects, and as such, it does not disappoint.
Todd and Viola, the two main characters, the former uneducated but valiant, the latter a girl who makes no Noise because she’s a girl, are now captured by the power-hungry Mayor Prentiss and in different parts of the town, but they worry only about each other. They find themselves in the middle of a stack of kindling that is the town of Haven, now renamed Prentisstown. This is a town that, all through The Knife, was their quest and perceived safe place. To find it now the complete opposite of what they had hoped it to be, and under the control of the man they had successfully evaded for almost the entire previous book, is disheartening to say the least.
Mayor Prentiss renames himself President Prentiss, and establishes a totalitarian regime over the town with his own secret ability to use the Noise as a weapon. Some of the females in the newly-renamed town escape–with a supply of bombs and weapons–and start lobbing small bombs at the town to express their dissatisfaction with his rule. They call themselves “The Answer.” In response, and as part of his regime, President Prentiss puts together a military/”counter-intelligence” unit he calls “The Ask.” Both groups are utterly convinced of the rightness of their individual missions, and unconcerned about the mounting body count. Through all of this, Todd and Viola, though stuck on opposing sides, make friends with various people in the town and learn of their multifaceted motives.
How Did he do it?
It is amazing to me that Patrick Ness, the author, was able to take what would seem to be an overwhelmingly complicated theme, an expanding body of central characters whose emotions all seem to want to overtake them, and large swaths of necessary backstory, and wrestle them all into a plot that is briskly but still realistically paced. It doesn’t get bogged down in emotion or reaction, which it easily could have. I feel like an English teacher somewhere needs to teach a class based on this book so that I can take it and learn exactly how he did it.
This isn’t to say, though, that this is one of those thin-brained, shallow action books, with only a basted-together plot. It is, perhaps, because Ness shows the emotions and reactions that are as intense as the events that they succeed, in the short, I-don’t-have-enough-of-a-vocabulary-to-articulate-how-I-feel-but-I-really-want-to-because-I-want-this-fight-to-stop language of two teenage orphans. He also shows them in the fierce, wordless attacks volleyed by each side, each in response to perceived injustices or attacks by the other side. It is in that mounting cycle of hurt and revenge, fueled by lack of communication and desire to understand, that the book becomes that well-woven treatise on war.
But, in the end, it is also a book about where hope lies for the breaking of that cycle. In the limited and confused attempts of Todd and Viola to calm those around them while also not invalidating everybody’s hurts and nor the leaders’ ultimate goals, we begin to see the seeds of peace.
There is, obviously, then a lot of violence in this book (on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the goriest, I’d give it 6-ish). There is no sex or nudity that I recall, and little in the way of cursing.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr.