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.)

★★★★★

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