The Ask and The Answer & Monsters of Men – Patrick Ness (Chaos Walking series #2 & #3)

I’ve waxed somewhat lyrical in this post, so here’s a TL;DR version – everybody I know, please please please read these books and then immediately tell me so we can talk about them!!


 

When I finished reading the first instalment of Ness’ Chaos Walking series, I put the book down – in tears – and swore loudly (out loud) at the author (as if he could hear me). I then immediately logged on to my library account and reserved the rest of the series.

When I then went and picked them up, the librarian started chatting with me – first, checking that I had read the first book (I like this. It shows concern for the sanctity of reading, and noticing when one of a set is missing.) and then moving on to discussing how good the first one was, how much we both liked it, and ended with both of us agreeing that people are awful.

Anyway.

As in previous posts, I’ve reviewed these two books together because that’s how I like to read a fiction series; all together, like a box set marathon or a Netflix binge. Please don’t infer from this that any of each of Chaos Walking is not worth a post (or several) on their own; in fact, I could quite easily have used any of the three books as a comfortable and effective doorstop, dumbbell, or stepping stool (I am pretty short) were I not too busy keeping my nose buried in them, desperately turning pages. However, they are definitely all parts of a whole – and what a whole. These books are so good, you guys!!

I realise that in my last emotion-filled post about this series, I didn’t actually give any kind of plot overview whatsoever! So, spoiler-free as I can make it:

Todd is a young man/boy living on the New World. The New World has been colonised by human settlers in the last twenty years or so, because the Old World (our world, presumably) was torn by war and pretty much out of natural resource. So, the ever-hopeful human race sailed for the stars, hoping to populate a new paradise. However, something (we don’t know what yet) has obviously gone wrong, because there are no women in this new world. Somewhat problematic for populating paradise, one might think!

There were another couple of surprises in store for the settlers: the natives (called the Spackle) for a start, and the fact that, shortly after landing, every man had his thoughts and feelings broadcast, like a permanently on megaphone in sound and pictures, that the settlers called NOISE. This has got to be a LOUD planet. The animals have noise, too – through which they can talk, sort of – but the women apparently didn’t.

That’s really all I can explain of the plot without spoiling the first book, but honestly,the series is a real epic. Much like The Hunger Games seemed to surprise everyone by being about more than an imaginary bleak future saved by a teenage girl (I mean, it was that but it was so much more), please don’t make the mistake of reading my little summary above and dismissing this trilogy as YA sci fi fluff.

It’s not.

Ness is really a very clever writer. Firstly, in his imagination and the devices he creates – the Noise is one of the most natural and convincing sci-fi devices I’ve read in a long time. It didn’t feel forced or fake or like a cheat – it felt really real, like of course people can communicate and hear each other that way.  They’ve done some nifty work on the typesetting, too – different fonts are used really effectively to add to the meaning, so an animal’s noise is written all thick and scratchy, for example, and someone whose noise can’t be heard has a smaller, tighter type, like all the thoughts are pulled in close together. I’ve written before how this can be quite distracting to me as a reader if I feel the visual and the meaning don’t match (although I do know this is massively subjective) – well, here they not only match, they add an extra layer of meaning to what you’re reading.

Then, we have the themes and the subtext behind the devices. There are some obvious parallels to American history – it’s hard not to think about the oppression of Native Americans when reading about the Spackle- but there are more universal themes, as well: the (again, slightly more obvious when you start the book with no women at all) theme of gender relations, touching on oppression, gendered violence, communication difficulties, the differences between porn, fantasy and reality, and that whole gamut. Added to that, we’ve got a huge helping of humanity’s propensity for war, nuances of when fighting is right – is it ever right to kill? – terrorism v. freedom fighting, and whether strong defence and a desire for revenge are opposites or a Venn diagram. That’s a biggie.

Chuck in a handful of the sentience of animals (Ness has written the most convincing dog I think I’ve ever read), the difference and similarities between coercion and persuasion and an examination of the bonds of family (and what that word means) and we’ve probably got enough for a dissertation or two!

Seriously, there’s real food for thought here – enough that it made me and the librarian agree on the terrible nature of humans, enough that each book had me in tears (multiple times. Once on the DLR. That was fun.), enough that I want to read them all over again so I can spend time soaking in the hope. Because although all of these themes are heavy, and a bit bleak, and humans are awful – there’s hope, too. They’re hopeful stories.

(Despite the fact that my heart is broken.)

Patrick Ness. On the offchance (no chance) that you ever read this, please know that I hate you and I will never forgive you.

You know what you did.

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