Monsters of Men, by Patrick Ness

monAfter the high of The Ask and the Answer there was basically no way Monsters of Men was going to live up to that level of quality — and indeed it didn’t. But it was an interesting failure.

The Chaos Walking trilogy is all about difficult choices, and each book has had a different take on that theme. The first book was a straightforward chase drama in which the central choice was whether to descend to the level of the murderous townsfolk — and also whether to have faith in a better future. The second book presented an ethical dilemma about how to choose between two compromised sides.

Monsters of Men is superficially about war — but it’s really about how to atone for one’s guilt over terrible wrongs. The setup is great. As the Mayor and the Answer are about to engage in a battle to the death, the Spackle arrive in enormous numbers to avenge their enslaved and then slain brethren. To reflect the new characters, Ness introduces a third POV: that of 1017, the lone survivor of the Mayor’s slaughter of Haven’s Spackle slaves. 1017’s viewpoint is heartbreaking. We discover not only that he lost his beloved in the massacre, but that his long period of servitude also separated him from his fellow Spackle, who are united by some sort of shared consciousness. He is of course consumed by rage and grief and a powerful desire to take revenge — his chapters are essentially an endless howl of anguish and thwarted justice.

The thing is this he’s totally in the right. But the target of 1017’s anger is our very own Todd, who was essentially the overseer of the Spackle slaves during the previous book. Todd knows his role in their suffering and even their death. And yet because of his love of Viola he has no interest in dying — a survival instinct that he cannot root out — even though he acknowledges in his better moments that, yes, he should really be punished.

Finally Viola is horrified that with the arrival of the Spackle, the Mayor and the Answer have joined forces to save humanity. She still doesn’t trust the Mayor and is wary of Todd’s closeness to him — as well as his new inscrutability from mind-reading. And with the arrival of the settler ships she faces the unsettling question of whether to let this precursor to yet another batch of humans get involved in a war not of their making.

Ness should again be credited for setting up an incredibly interesting collection of conflicts and mixed feelings, with everybody literally sitting on weapons of mass destruction ready to be unleashed at any time. That being said the worst features of the first book once more rear their ugly heads.

For instance the book begins with a massive act of stupidity. Todd has the Mayor at his mercy — if not to kill, then at least to humiliate and crush forever — and he lets him go with a stern “I’ll be watching you, don’t try anything funny.” Are you kidding me. The Mayor doesn’t know anything but funny business! And of course he immediately resumes his snake oil charm, to disastrous effect.

In addition, to highlight the ethical dilemmas he poses, Ness too frequently gives his protagonists too much responsibility. At one point Viola is literally handed the trigger to megatons of ordnance and told, point blank, “The choice is yours: kill thousands, or spare their lives?” Of course Viola then immediately shows that she is, after all, still a freakin’ kid by impulsively sending missiles flying based on a fleeting belief that Todd is in danger. Next time, team, let’s keep the big guns away from the half-crazed hormone-flooded teenager.

Next I found the poor Spackle leader, the Sky, just hilariously incompetent. I mean the poor dude keeps acting all “I’ve got an awesome secret plan, trust me to take care of everything,” except that his secret plans keep failing — as in every time! — and he can’t even prevent the most obvious problems (like 1017 going crazy and trying to kill people), and then every time he lays yet another big one he gets all sad and brays “Peace,” i.e., “I surrender.” It is completely pathetic! And completely contrary to what I understand is supposed to be the gravity of his character.

Finally I didn’t like that this book had more climaxes than — well I was going to make an off-color joke but I suppose this is a family blog. Seriously though this book kept coming right up to a seeming conclusion and then something random would happen — somebody would go totally bat crazy, or launch into some inane scheme, or reappear from the dead, etc. etc. etc. By the time the book actually ended I half expected yet another curveball (seriously — I thought a sea monster would make a reappearance), but no all we get is the usual appearance of a sad ending except we can’t leave all the young readers crying so let’s throw in an epilogue that will set their imaginations on fire with thoughts of the hot reunion that will occur not in the book but in their fevered imaginations instead.

I’m actually surprised that Ness, who has been so bloody-minded otherwise, finally shied away from real consequences in the end. This trilogy had the potential of ending on a note as powerful as the His Dark Materials trilogy, which was far from perfect (very far) but concluded with this heartbreaking image of two young lovers in different dimensions sitting in parallel physical locations and imagining each other’s presence. Instead of a gut punch, Ness, perhaps because he too began to love his characters too much, lets them off.

I’ll be honest, in the immediate aftermath of finishing the book I was very happy for the mercy. But afterward I realized it was a glaring burst of dishonesty in a trilogy than otherwise has not flinched from hard questions and worse consequences.

★★★☆☆

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.

★★★☆☆