Todd Hewitt, a boy on the cusp of manhood, lives in Prentisstown on New World, where his people settled in order to live a simpler life closer to God. Only problem is, the natives of New World weren’t the friendliest, and during the war that ensued, they released a germ that killed off all of the women (including Todd’s mother), half of the men (including Todd’s father), and caused all men’s thoughts to be broadcast. (Incidentally, all the animals can speak too. Who doesn’t love a talking dog?) This Noise is not something that can be turned off or ignored – it is always there, and it is the concept from which Patrick Ness draws the title for his trilogy, Chaos Walking. As Todd tells us, “Noise is a man unfiltered, and without a filter, a man is just Chaos Walking.”
In The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first in the trilogy, Todd is mentally preparing himself for becoming a man in a few short days when he stumbles upon a strange silence in the Noise, something he knows cannot exist. But there it is – silence, in a way even louder than the Noise itself. Todd’s discovery changes his life completely, setting him off on a mad chase as he is pursued by several men who may or may not be crazy, are probably lying about everything, and most certainly want to kill him. This is an oversimplified synopsis, but much of the joy of reading a great dystopia is its newness. The less you know, the more enjoyable it is. You’ll have to take my word for it that this is a great one.
The idea of being able to read minds (willingly or unwillingly) is not new, but Ness writes about it in such a way that it feels fresh. He makes several stylistic choices that contribute to the unique feel of the book. The most obvious is the way he (or his editor) chose to represent Noise – in a radically different, messy, large font. At a couple of points in the book, Noise covers a whole spread of pages, and the effect is powerful. Reading those pages feels both fascinating and claustrophobic. While I love audiobooks, I can’t imagine listening to this one. It really should be read with the eyes.
Several of Ness’ other stylistic choices also paid off. The story is told in first person present tense, and the feeling is that Todd is telling it to you as it happens. This technique works great for an action-centered book such as this, whereas I find it a bit wearing in other books. Todd is illiterate and grew up in a pretty primitive settlement, so he tells his story in dialect. Far from being annoying, it makes Todd an endearing, frustrating, and real person. I could hear Todd speaking to me; it felt as if I were reading his own Noise. At points when Todd is stressed or proud or angry, he’ll give the reader a parenthetical aside – (shut up!) – bringing us even further into his mind. Ness also makes liberal use of run-on sentences when Todd’s thoughts are moving too swiftly for proper punctuation. Some of the action sequences are written with short, fragmentary, one-sentence paragraphs, a technique I found less successful but didn’t detract too much. The end result of these style choices is that the reader is left with a book that really feels like a creative work. Ness isn’t just telling us a story – he has created something, and it is different and artful and challenging.
A lot of well-plotted young adult fiction suffers from a lack of depth or meaning. I can immediately think of a dozen young adult books that start with a great premise but just aren’t very good books. The Knife of Never Letting Go is not one of these. Like The Hunger Games, which I was reminded a lot of while reading Ness’ book, The Knife of Never Letting Go is essentially one long action sequence, but I feel that Todd’s world and its characters were better fleshed out. It is for this reason that I anticipate reading The Ask and the Answer, the second book in the trilogy, even more than I anticipate reading Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games (and I did really like The Hunger Games).
Truly great literature always includes three essential things: an interesting plot, eloquent writing, and layers of meaning. This one’s got them all, particularly that last one (it won the Tiptree award, but the way the book explores what it means to be a man is not its only takeaway). Sure, it’s not a perfect book. The short lines irritated me, and at points I had a hard time suspending my disbelief. But the book’s strengths overwhelmingly outweigh its weaknesses. How do you think your own community would react if everyone’s thoughts were suddenly broadcast to you, without any way to stop it from happening? Would your community’s reaction make you proud or afraid?
The Ask and the Answer will be released in the US one week from today. That is plenty of time for you all to go out and read The Knife of Never Letting Go. And then you can send me a message and we can commiserate over how much we hate Patrick Ness for [this phrase has been removed due to spoilage]. And how even though we truly do hate him, we’re still going to read his next book.
While you wait for the second or third book, check out this short story prequel that Ness has written. Even though it’s a prequel, it’s heavy on spoilers, so don’t read it unless you’ve read Knife.