This is Book 2 of the Chaos Walking Trilogy, the first volume of which was The Knife of Never Letting Go. Unfortunately it is not possible to discuss the plot of Book 2 without ruining it for those who want to start the series, so if you have not read it yet, skip down to the Evaluation. (Notice I say yet: don’t miss these books!) If you already have, I would love to get your comments on the Discussion section.
Caution: Spoilers ahead for Book One (The Knife of Never Letting Go)
Todd and Viola are now in New Prentisstown, formerly Haven before it was invaded by Mayor (now President) Prentiss, a crazed but canny megalomaniac with remarkable powers of persuasion. The two are separated. Viola is sent to a healing center and Todd is made a prisoner who must work during the day, answerable to the Mayor’s son, Davy Prentiss. Their job is to force the enslaved Spackles (the resident race of this colonized planet) to dig a building foundation but with only their hands and with inadequate supplies of food and water.
Next, Davy and Todd are required to brand the Spackle as if they were cattle (or, in one of many pointed analogies, Jews under the Nazi regime). And like the Jews, the Spackle end up as snow – burned-up ashes falling thick from the non-wintry sky.
Women, led by Mistress Coyne of the healing center, take up arms against the tyranny of the men: they form “The Answer” [read: partisan resistance]. The Mayor impresses Todd and Davy into “The Ask” [read: The S.S.]. And both groups get a surprise as a third group joins the battle.
What is this book really about?
One theme is certainly about the loud ROAR of information overload – it is ubiquitous in our society and inescapable, whether from television, the internet, movies, background music, billboards, radios, IPods, or peers. As in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 prescient story The Murderer, it can drive people insane. Ness poses the question by his story, what is the effect of all this NOISE on us? What does it do to our ability to filter the real from the contrived? How does it change the way we relate to one another and even to ourselves?
A related theme is the control of all this information and the power of knowledge. The leaders of both The Ask and The Answer are acutely aware of this and use it in the best way they can. As The Mayor tells Viola:
“‘I have two maxims that I believe, dear girl,’ the Mayor says, coming slowly toward us. ‘One, if you can control yourself, you can control others. Two, if you can control information, you can control others.’ He grins, his eyes flashing.”
A third theme is the ease with which participation in evil can also make you evil, even if you are “just obeying orders.” Your conscience won’t let you commit immoral acts without resolving the cognitive dissonance engendered by your behavior. And in so resolving it, your inner core of goodness can rot away.
And what about love? Surely a theme explored in many ways in this book: the love of power, the love of justice, filial love, romantic love, the love of comradship. Does love make you weak, or does love make you strong? Viola thinks it makes you strong:
“‘He’s wrong forever and ever – It’s not that you should never love something so much it can control you. It’s that you need to love something that much so you can never be controlled.. It’s not a weakness – It’s your best strength…”
But the love of a son (Davy) for his father and a father (Ben) for his son, get both Davy and Ben killed.
And the love of power will get many more killed before the war is over. The Mayor [read: Fuhrer], fully in his pathological efflorescence, says:
“‘Finally, we come to the real thing, the thing that makes men men, the thing we were born for, Todd.’ He rubs his hands together and his eyes flash as he says the word. ‘War.
The author takes what is basically a one-note idea and creates a dark fugue of complex characterization and surprising plot turns. There are such moments of deep tenderness and poignancy intermixed with visceral cruelty that it can take your breath away. This is an exciting, edge-of-your-seat book that repeatedly impresses you by the author’s skill for conjuring up the unexpected.
And not only that: we, the readers, have unexpected reactions. The characters whom we have learned to hate, we find we can love. The characters whom we have learned to love – they have learned to hate, and yet we cannot hate them for it. As Viola says:
Viola: “We are the choices we make. And have to make. We aren’t anything else.”
There are quite a few memorable characters in this book, richly rendered – even the horse, Angharrad, who refers to her rider Todd as “Boy Colt.”
The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and The Answer are extraordinary books. Although they are marketed as books of young adult dystopic fiction, I think their sophistication and the life experience required to understand their pathos makes them even more meaningful for adults. I highly recommend them.
Published by Walker Books Ltd., 2009