After 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.