Review: The Chaos Walking trilogy, by Patrick Ness
August 13, 2013
Todd Hewitt is the only boy in a town of men. Ever since the settlers were infected with the Noise germ, Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks. Todd is just a month away from becoming a man, but in the midst of the cacophony, he knows that the town is hiding something from him — something so awful Todd is forced to flee with only his dog, whose simple, loyal voice he hears too. With hostile men from the town in pursuit, the two stumble upon a strange and eerily silent creature: a girl. Who is she? Why wasn’t she killed by the germ like all the females on New World? Propelled by Todd’s gritty narration, readers are in for a white-knuckle journey in which a boy on the cusp of manhood must unlearn everything he knows in order to figure out who he truly is.
Patrick Ness shot to prominence in 2009 when The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first in the Chaos Walking trilogy, won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. It was a something I was meaning to read and, for some reason, never got hold of a copy. However recently, I just kept coming back to it with the feeling I was missing out. Finally, I listened to Patrick speaking to Simon Savidge about A Monster Calls, on podcast You Wrote The Book, and knew I couldn’t wait any longer – I took the plunge and bought the whole trilogy. To say I wasn’t disappointed would be putting it mildly. This explains why I’m reviewing the trilogy as a whole, something I’d never normally do; I can guarantee, once you start to read The Knife of Never Letting Go, you won’t be able to stop. I’ll avoid giving away anything critical, but be warned, I will mention the plot of all three instalments.
Very occasionally, you read something that truly takes your breath away, something truly unique and special. I feel like I’ve been pretty lucky like that in the last few months – Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway and Tall Tales From Pitch End by Nigel McDowell spring to mind – but these are always the exceptions, so I never try to second-guess, even with great recommendations. Nonetheless, the Chaos Walking trilogy has safely joined that rare group of books which stopped me in my tracks.
Chaos Walking is made up of The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and The Answer, and Monsters of Men. It follows the journey of Todd, an orphan and the youngest member of a village comprised entirely of men, why (at first) we don’t know. It’s a bildungsroman, a journey of self-discovery in the purest and widest sense, because it turns out that Todd, who sees himself as the lowliest and most ordinary of boys, has the power to save his world and its entire population. In The Knife, Todd meets a girl – possibly the only one on the planet – and must escape, with her, from the murderous grasp of the Mayor, while also trying to discover what it is about himself which is so unusual. The more he learns about the girl – Viola – the more he is able to understand about himself, his past, the world around him and the actions he’ll have to take to guarantee their future. As they head for the semi-fabled city of Haven, pursued by the Mayor’s army, they also draw closer to each other and begin to realise what they are prepared to risk for each other.
What immediately charmed me about The Knife was the narrative voice of Todd. Ness writes in Todd’s voice directly, using colloquialism and phonetic spelling to allow us to hear Todd’s thoughts; that’s important, of course, because in this world, men can literally hear the thoughts of others, not just the words they speak aloud. Todd refers to this as Noise, something which is pivotal right from the outset as it can betray a character’s innermost secrets or desires unless they are able to shield themselves. Todd is open, funny, exasperated as teenagers are by the world around them and the responsibilities they’ve not asked for, yet are heaped upon them. For example, at the beginning of The Knife, he’s particularly fed up with looking after hapless dog Manchee, whose thoughts we can also hear. I loved making sharing Todd’s journey with him, through excitement, humour, confusion – especially when Noise becomes overwhelming – and even tragedy. I rooted for him, and Viola, and even Manchee, every step of the way.
In The Ask and The Answer, Todd and Viola both have a narrative voice as they are separated by events once they reach Haven. Both these developments are brilliant, but also essential, as Ness pushes Viola to become fully rounded as a character and presents a new challenge for the pair – to survive without each other, having become so completely dependent. Todd must learn to distinguish between truth and appearance, losing some of his innocence and starting to utilise cynicism and deception, while still sticking to the right side. Viola must learn to when to trust others, and when herself, and that she also has talents of which she is unaware, of healing, of negotiation and of determination. Both these young people have to pick their way through a world torn apart by factions, terrorism and the uprising of a subjugated native population, facing incredible odds, and they do so with feeling, with sympathy, with pain. While I never stopped rooting for Todd, or for Viola, at times I felt like screaming at them, shaking them; I took every step of the way – every line – with hope and horror in my heart.
The final part of the trilogy, Monsters of Men, opens with the lines, ‘“War”, says Mayor Prentiss, his eyes glinting. “At last.”’ And Monsters of Men is where everything comes together, in the best and worst of ways. Todd has learned so much about his own abilities but has also had to compromise his principles in ways he finds appalling. Viola knows that the Answer, the rebel faction she’s fighting with, are also morally compromised, but that she has no choice but to work with them. The Spackle, the native species, are now in all-out war against the humans, or The Clearing – and we gain a third narrator, The Return, a Spackle saved by Todd who can think of nothing but revenge. This is the final masterstroke from Ness; by adding the voice of The Return, we finally get a complete view of the world where Todd and Viola live, and how the pieces could, possibly, begin to be put back together, albeit against incredible odds. It also means we have an even greater degree of dramatic irony, as we see the action from three perspectives. At times, I found the tension almost unbearable, as I saw characters making plans, hoping against hope, knowing their ideas were already doomed. At times, we’re stunned by the generosity of characters, the sacrifices they are prepared to make for each other and for the preservation of society, present and future. And then there’s the Mayor, who really is the most incredibly insidious villain, always present, always a mystery, always as dangerous as a coiled rattlesnake.
Chaos Walking is not an easy read, and it’s not gentle. The story buffets you with emotion from start to finish, but that’s not to say it’s all at tension-level-100. There are surprises, both awful and wonderful throughout – we’re never allowed to become comfortable before the balance shifts again. There’s rise and fall, humour as well as horror, tenderness as well as brutality. I was pushed and challenged to respond, to keep up with the characters, and while, of course, I won’t say how it ends, I was left speechless by the final chapters, tears on my cheeks. I was shocked but the ending also felt completely fitting, and I can’t tell you how much I value that.
In the bookshop, you’ll find this trilogy in the Young Adult section but don’t be fooled. This is one of the most grown-up, sophisticated, philosophical and intelligent things I’ve ever read. In case you can’t tell, I loved it.
Stop what you’re doing. Go, buy it, read it now. It’ll change your life.
The Chaos Walking trilogy is available in three volumes – The Knife of Never Letting Go (£7.99), The Ask and The Answer (£7.99) and Monsters of Men (£7.99) – in paperback from Walker.