The Ask and the Answer, by Patrick Ness

askI had some issues with The Knife of Never Letting Go but its sequel, The Ask and the Answer, is so good. So good. Indeed it is by far the best book of the Chaos Walking trilogy, which is unusual for a middle volume, but in this case the comparison isn’t even close.

As you’d expect there are a lot of spoilers of the first book so I’d stop now if you haven’t read it.

Basically at the end of the first book we found out that Mayor Prentiss, formerly the head of the murderous townsfolk chasing after Todd and Viola, had taken over Haven in a bloodless coup. The sight of the Mayor greeting Todd as he holds Viola’s dying body is the indelible image that propels us into this volume.

Todd is forced to work with the Mayor. Viola is taken to the healers, but most of them (including Viola) rebel from the Mayor’s reign and form a little militant group dedicated to getting back their freedom.

The battle lines seem pretty clear eh? Not even close.

The first thing I love about this book is how it twists who’s good and who’s evil. I totally expected a ham-fisted treatment about saintly freedom fighters who (gasp!) aren’t vegetarian and dastardly tyrants who (ooh!) love art, but Ness really ignores the little stuff and lets the contradictions fly.

There’s a well known trope (maybe it’s even an actual scene in some book) where an assassin with an indisputably just cause reaches his target, a monstrous ruler — only to discover the villain composing a tender letter to a beloved, innocent grandchild. The point of this trope is to introduce uncertainty into the reader’s sense of justice and desert, forcing him to recognize that even the bad guy will be mourned when he passes.

The chapters with Todd and the Mayor’s people are like this trope except a lot better. It starts almost right away, with the Mayor giving Todd (and then the people of Haven) a very effective “I’m not the bad guy” speech. And it continues while Todd sinks ever lower into more and more monstrous things, especially regarding the alien Spackle, with the seductiveness of the Mayor’s approval and apparent good faith clouding all judgment about why he’s never trusted this guy.

I need to highlight in particular the book’s amazing treatment of the Mayor’s son, Davy, who you may recall actually shot Viola in the first book, starts out in this one as a total ass, but then gradually becomes this sympathetic and even likeable character! The thing is that many young people have had experiences with former tormentors mysteriously transforming into friends (the very thing happened to me during eighth grade for reasons that my former enemy, now good friend, and I find baffling) but Ness’s portrayal of this change in the Davy-Todd relationship is maybe the first really persuasive fictional version of this I’ve read.

On the other side of the ledger the rebels whom Viola joins turn out to be wholly justified in their cause and yet plainly ruthless terrorists in the al Qaeda mode. Are there human costs to this battle? Oh yes. And lies and betrayals are a small price to pay for a chance of regaining Haven.

I want to be clear. It’s not that Ness inverts black and white here. There’s really no question that the Mayor is the bad guy and the rebels are right to try to overthrow him. But is the Mayor redeemable? Is he sometimes right? Can he be a friend and not just an enemy? Maybe, says Ness. By the same token do the rebels properly judge when sacrifice is needed? Are they careful enough about citizens? Are they really so different from the Mayor in their singleminded devotion? Would they be any less monomaniacal as the rulers of Haven in pursuit of their own imperfect vision of the good?

Maybe not, Ness says.

The second thing I like about this book is how quickly and naturally things escalate. The entire book is a pitched battle between the Mayor and the rebels and it keeps getting uglier and uglier, with consequences that Ness doesn’t shy away from revealing. In particular Todd’s oversight over the Spackle turns grotesque — a twist with major implications — as does the Mayor’s need to get human intelligence and the rebels’ cold calculations over the importance of their members’ own lives. Todd and Viola are right in the midst of these escalations, sometimes merely witnessing them, but more often being forced to execute them. And Ness doesn’t spare us or them the ugly and bloody effects of their decisions.

The third thing I like about this book is the relationship between Todd and Viola. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a boy and girl in a YA novel who’ve gone through a lot together will fall in love (though the girl certainly deserves to catch the eye of a hunky competitor), and this book fits that mold with some twists. For one thing we get POV chapters now from both Todd and Viola (the previous book involved just Todd) and both are big feelers with big emotions, which they recount in a breathless stream-of-consciousness style that is a surprisingly accurate portrayal of how teens think they think. I suppose some people will find the writing annoying but I thought it was very effective at heightening the emotions that the two lovebirds feel for each other.

Another twist is that Todd and Viola spend much of the book apart even as they go through significant mental changes on their own. (It occurs to me that given their ages they must also be going through massive physical changes but Ness kinda leaves all that unspoken.) The narrative significance of this physical separation is that their mutual yearning reaches a fever pitch; but at the same time every rare encounter becomes a minefield because in their time apart each young’un has constructed from his and her memories and hopes elaborate expectations about the other — expectations that are rarely fulfilled. (Viola’s desperate need to hear Todd’s thoughts is particularly heartbreaking.)

The end of The Ask and the Answer is a mixed bag. On the one hand it involves one of those ridiculous “battles of the mind” that involve (e.g.) two characters grunting at each other in complete physical stillness as energies whip around them — an image that does not affirm anybody’s dignity and yet recurs with laughable frequency in speculative fiction. On the other hand the very ending, just like the ending for the first book, is flat out awesome. Ness has been setting up for this since book one, and heightening the set up through a series of atrocities in book two, and the end of The Ask and the Answer sets up a truly delicious conflict for the last and final volume of the Chaos Walking trilogy.

(Am I really giving a maximum rating to a YA science-fiction melodrama? Yes I am.)

★★★★★

The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness

knifeI read The Knife of Never Letting Go in one evening so there’s clearly a lot of good here but let me start with the bad.

Knife does two things that I really dislike in books. First it has some dumb protagonists. The main characters (Todd and Viola) are kids, so some idiocy is to be expected, but boy. They spend most of this book running away from a murderous gang composed of Todd’s former townsfolk and they just cannot get the running away right. They take long breaks. They dally. They spend twenty minutes sawing through a rope. They decide to have nervous breakdowns out in the open instead of, I dunno, hiding. They think oh the murderous townsfolk have given up (they haven’t). They even go backward at one point! I seriously wanted to sit them down and tell them, the first rule of running away is you RUN…AWAY!

Second the book tries to generate a lot of tension by withholding information that is readily accessible. For example Todd carries around this big book written by his mother. Relevant? WHAT DO YOU THINK?! True, Todd is functionally illiterate but it still takes ages before somebody says, want me to tell you what’s in the book? And Todd says no! I nearly stopped right there.

Relatedly there’s a big mystery about the town where Todd grew up. There are good reasons for the townsfolk (before they become murderous) to not say anything to Todd, but at some point he meets other people who know a lot more — and they don’t say anything either! I mean come on! I’d even accept an awkward “interlude” through another POV over this annoying coyness.

Ok. I feel better now.

Let me start at the beginning. Knife is a young adult science fiction novel about an alien world that’s been settled by humans, but not happily. The problem is that something in the world (it’s not clear what) makes people’s thoughts transparent to each other. It’s also killed all the women.

Todd has grown up as the youngest child in the last human settlement on the planet. There are 146 men in the settlement, and many of them are basically half crazy with lack of female companionship and the inability to hide their thoughts. Patrick Ness should be credited with going straight to where this situation would lead a group of men, which Todd explains by saying that the men are constantly thinking about big-breasted blonde women doing physically unusual things.

Oh, besides people it also turns out animals’ thoughts are readable though of course animals are a lot dumber. This is especially true of Todd’s dog Manchee who is hilariously obsessed with poo and who is also I’d wager the fan favorite character in this book. Seriously I loved that mutt so much.

Oh Manchee.

Anyway it turns out a lot of what I’ve just said is a lie (except for the mind-reading and the awesome dog) and Todd goes on the run from the angry townsfolk who have turned from fantasies about unrealistic women into thoughts of murder, just like that.

The plot revelations are neat but raise a whole lot of questions that I don’t believe are ever fully answered like: Why didn’t the townsfolk turn murderous earlier? Why didn’t other people deal with them earlier? What’s so special about Todd? What’s so special about the town — and the men in it? Good luck finding real answers. (There are some fig leaf responses in the text but they’re so lame they don’t count.)

Now I kid a lot but being serious for one moment the beginning of this book is a rocking roller coaster of excitement. Even as you’re screaming at Todd to get his ass moving you are growing tense watching him run. And so much crazy interesting new stuff pops up in the beginning that the fleeing never gets stale.

After the beginning things settle a bit but all in all this is one great chase narrative. There is this annoying bit about a Terminator-like preacher who I expected at any moment to be revealed as a cyborg but no, he’s just really resistant to pain and infection and massive crocodiles I guess? But other than that I say kudos to Ness for the adrenaline-packed narrative.

Also applause for the relationship between Todd and his new buddy Viola, who is very annoying while mute but quite endearing when she regains her voice. Both of these characters wear their hearts on their sleeves and emote like crazy which I like.

And the ending — yikes. I feel bad for the kids who didn’t have access to the sequel crying about the lack of fairness in the world.

So this book was really fun and really annoying but spent just enough time on the fun side to be a readable blast.

★★★☆☆

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by George Saunders

356404I came to this book already smitten due to a quirk of personal history. When I was (much) younger I was something of a short story snob in the modern MFA style. For me a “correct” story was a tedious little slice of life (because what is life if not tedious) about some unremarkable middle-class schlub (because what are we if not schlubs) agitating over what we would today call first-world problems, and written in a style somewhere between Hemingway and Carver.

Then one day in 1995 I opened the latest issue of Harper’s, which was an outstanding forum for the type of short fiction I thought was “proper,” to find this bizarre insert — I remember it being some sort of yellowish, artificially aged paper though I wouldn’t put any money on that memory — with the craziest novella I’d ever read. It was about a mutant in a theme park who journeyed across a dystopian America dodging slavers and losing his virginity to find a mutated sister whose despair at her condition had led her to prostitution. I very clearly remember reading the story with a growing sense of dismay. Science fiction, in this venerable east coast publication? Affected, orotund, but hilarious dialogue? And central billing to boot?!

This wacky mutant tale could not have been more shocking to my then-starchy sensibilities. But by the time I finished the story I discovered that its sheer ridiculousness had wormed itself into my heart. I loved it.

The name of the story was “Bounty,” and the author was a man named George Saunders. When I saw Saunders’ CivilWarLand in Bad Decline in the bookstore not too long later, and realized that “Bounty” was inside (and, indeed, its crowning achievement), I bought it and ate it up.

You might be wondering how I liked the book. Ha! The truth is I know not everybody does. And the reason for this divided opinion is Saunders’ jaunty, loose-limbed, and hilarious voice. If you like the way he writes then one book is just not enough. If you don’t then he’s intolerable.

For me the wonder of Saunders’ writing is how he’s able to tie together cliches and pop expressions and some of the most casual, slapdash dialogue you will ever see into this stream of pure comedy. And then how he’s able to direct that hilarity to some disturbingly dark areas. Nearly all of the stories in CivilWarLand deal with underdogs laboring under the weight of cheerfully arbitrary bureaucracies. By the end of the book — literally the last line of “Bounty” — Saunders hints that the underdogs might grow a backbone. But until then, man. A more heartily abused and debased collection of losers you will not see.

There is an afterword by Saunders in the most recent edition of CivilWarLand that is one of the most fascinating insights into an author I’ve read. It helps that it’s really funny but more to the point you can see how the collection’s focus on losers getting crushed arose from Saunders’ own feelings of inadequacy and mediocrity as an aspiring fiction writer mired in a dull job. (Somewhere out there are storm water reports written by this man.) The afterword is also a paean to writers discovering their own style, rather than merely aping their predecessors. As it turns out the bizarre comedic voice that is Saunders’ trademark is a natural growth, not a developed mannerism — albeit one that it took him years to have the courage to uncover. Write not how you expect to sound, but how you really are, Saunders says. The man would know.

★★★★★

11/22/63, by Stephen King

10644930If you could travel back in time to 1958, what would you do? I bet the last thing you’d do is try to stop JFK’s assassination. And yet that’s exactly what the protagonist of Stephen King’s 11/22/63 fixates on when he is introduced to a bizarre portal by a casual acquaintance.

Leaving aside why Jake Epping (the aforementioned protagonist) would upend his life on the word of a guy he barely knows, and leaving aside also why Jake wouldn’t just use his knowledge of the future to collect fabulous wealth and sleep with lots of women (as Biff wisely did in Back to the Future II) — why on earth would JFK’s life be the most important thing to protect? For one thing, JFK was not that great of a president — but Lyndon B. Johnson, who took over the chief seat after the assassination, was a great president. Without LBJ there would have been no Civil Rights Act of 1964, no Voting Rights Act of 1965, no Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (which opened the US to non-Europeans), no Great Society, etc. etc. King’s implicit counter argument is that there also might not be a Vietnam, but that’s really hard to say — the bright minds who pushed the US toward the Vietnam War were Kennedy’s people, and I’m doubtful he would have resisted their advice more than LBJ did.

Even if you want to focus on assassinations, why JFK? Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered not too long afterward, as was Robert Kennedy, JFK’s little brother. There are serious debates about how much of an impact either of these figures would have had — King was already being marginalized because of his opposition to the Vietnam War, and RFK was not a great politician despite his personal charm and idealism — but Epping engages in none of these debates. He takes it as a given that the astonishing miracle of time travel must be given to saving JFK.

Fine. Let’s suppose you do decide to do something major like prevent an assassination, or kill an evil figure, or whatever. When you return to the present, what do you think will happen? Traditionally there are two possible answers to this question. One assumes that history is stubborn and will snap back to its predestined course — so, for instance, Kennedy survives the assassination but then dies of a heart attack the next day. The other approach goes all “A Sound of Thunder” and assumes that the beat of a butterfly’s wing can cause a hurricane in China — i.e., a small change in the past leads to massive shifts in the present.

King boldly chooses yet another course. (Spoiler alert.) Forget about merely altering human history. Instead, changing the past causes volcanoes to explode! And Nazis to reemerge! And dinosaurs to roam the earth! (Ok the last isn’t true but that would’ve been awesome.) In all seriousness the ending of the book, in all its Revelations-like doomsaying, is truly ridiculous.

Fortunately only half of 11/22/63 is about the JFK assassination. The other half is a love story, and while far from a classic it’s actually a pretty decent one, if a little bit thick with the small-town Americana that only white people of a certain age remember nostalgically. (This book would’ve been really interesting if Jake were Chinese — or, heaven forfend, black.) I quite liked Jake’s love interest, Sadie, who is spunky and funny and kind, and not particularly subservient to men. And time-travel love stories have an inherent pathos that is hard for me to resist. This is no Time Traveler’s Wife here — I’m tearing up just thinking about that piece of inspired melodrama — but 11/22/63‘s love story made me happy and sad and wistful all at once.

Oh, and SPOILER ALERT again for my last thought. What I would’ve done at the end of the novel, if I were Jake, was go back through the rabbit hole, find Sadie again, leave JFK alone, and never go back to the future. I’m still not sure why this wasn’t a viable solution.

★★☆☆☆

King of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

12891107Mark Lawrence’s King of Thorns is a good sequel to Prince of Thorns, but it suffers from some grievous flaws. The book picks up right where Prince ended, with the sociopathic Jorg sitting on the throne of Renar, but it then immediately launches into an aimless travelogue through much of this far-future Earth. I’m not sure that much of what then ensues is essential or even helpful to the story — including a drawn-out zombie attack in the swamps, and a pointlessly violent episode in a town called Endless. The reason for all of this traveling is also never made clear, nor the reason for all of Jorg’s many stops. At one point, for example, he even spends some time with a circus, and for a moment I thought I had been unpleasantly transported into the worst parts of The Wheel of Time series.

The other major problem with the book is how confusing it is. Like the first book, King of Thorns follows two main plot threads spaced four years apart. But, like the infomercials, there’s more! Early on there is a major disruption to Jorg’s memory, which means that another storyline is told in flashbacks. Running parallel to all of this is a diary kept by Katherine, the object of Jorg’s amorous obsessions. And churned into the mix is Sageous and other wizards, who can alter reality (or at least people’s perceptions of reality) in ways that really mess up both the characters’ memories and the author’s narrative.

It’s actually a clever structure, and who doesn’t love an unreliable narrator, but for whatever reason — lack of signposting, poor pace, misplaced red herrings — Lawrence isn’t able to organize these competing threads in a clear way. There is for instance a major twist near the end that I’m pretty sure is not forecast at all. I read most of the book feeling disoriented, and not in a good way.

All that being said, King of Thorns is still a good read, if a macabre one, and Lawrence’s writing of Jorg’s voice hits all the right notes. Although the first two-thirds of the book is basically straight fantasy, by the end there is a heavy dollop of the far-future science fiction that I love so much — including (spoiler alert) a very talky but revealing AI. And after the book’s aimless beginning the ending itself is pretty fun.

What’s especially good about King of Thorns is its development of Jorg’s character. Make no mistake, the dude is still a bloodthirsty killer, but he definitely has his softer moments in this book, and it rounds out the more one-note persona from the first book. What stands out to me the most are Jorg’s surprisingly civil visit to his mother’s family, and his first feelings of regret over a killing — two affecting but convincing episodes. Naturally the book ends with yet another of Jorg’s macho declarations of wading through blood and making his enemies’ women wail etc. etc. but the more complex portrayal of his emotional life gives his toughness a pathos that elevates this book above its predecessor.

(Though not enough to give it a better score!)

★★★☆☆