Monday, September 7, 2009

Asks versus answers

Just when you thought you would be reading a sequel of the wonderful adventure story that is The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first novel of the Chaos Walking trilogy, the author throws a curve ball at you. This second novel, The Ask and the Answer, is totally different from the first one; it is darker, more brutal, and unafraid to tackle sensitive topics head on. While Patrick Ness may have written a slower second novel, The Ask and the Answer is indeed more satisfying than its predecessor.

The Knife of Never Letting Go ended with a superb cliffhanger, which provides a natural and effective springboard for The Ask and the Answer. Mayor Prentiss, who has now proclaimed himself president of New Prentisstown, has invaded the neighboring territories of Prentisstown. He promises to bring peace and order to the New World, but his methods for achieving these are anything but peaceful. When a town or city refuses to surrender to him, he organizes a massacre. But in the town of Haven, the people hear of the impending arrival of Prentiss's army and decide among themselves to surrender peacecully. Prentiss renames Haven to New Prentisstown and proceeds to segregate the women from the men.

If you've never read the first book, the narrative of The Ask and the Answer provides a good background on the circumstances of the characters living in this planet which they call the New World. These people have fled their planet, the reason of which Ness hasn't disclosed fully yet. When they arrive in this planet, they noticed that men's thoughts are broadcast all over the place, which people have labelled as Noise. Women, however, are naturally silent. In the New World, nothing is left secret among men, and it is this unique characteristic that Ness uses to full effect in the second novel, where an inevitable battle of the sexes ensues.

The Ask and the Answer still focuses on two characters -- Todd and Viola -- who become unwilling pawns in the war in New Prentisstown. After Prentiss has shut off the women from the town, some of these women form a rebellion which they call the Answer. Viola, having been separated from Todd by Prentiss, becomes a member. Todd, on the other hand, is left at New Prentisstown and becomes an unwilling pupil of Prentiss, who teaches him to control his Noise. The men of Haven, in retaliation to the Answer, form the Ask, a loose organization in charge of branding women similar to the way they brand cattle.

With the second novel, Ness has taken the Chaos Walking trilogy into different waters. The first one has a semblance of a science fiction young adult novel, especially with its setting in a different planet and the notion of people arriving in ships from another world. In The Ask and the Answer, these concepts hardly matter. Ness liberally takes ideas from history and weaves them into the narrative. He finds inspiration in the concepts of genocide, feminism, racism, slavery, and even the intervention of international agencies in matters of war. This technique may be lost among young readers, whom this book in intended for. Nevertheless, Ness's story holds its own water. The Ask and the Answer is a very riveting read, although some parts of it may feel contrived and affected.

Similar to the first novel, The Ask and the Answer is written in the present tense. This style lends a certain freshness to the narrative, an urgency, as if everything is indeed is happening right here, right now. When characters act on the situations they find themselves in, you find yourself mending your thoughts and feelings in the story.
And the mayor's just staring at me, staring into my Noise, and words form in my brain, PLEASE DON'T HURT HER said in my voice and his voice all twisted together, pressing down on the things I think, the things I know and it's different from the Noise slap, this voice pokes around where I don't want him, trying to open locked doors and turn over stones and shine lights where they shouldn't never be shown and all the while saying PLEASE DON'T HURT HER and I can feel myself starting to want to tell... [p. 206]
Restraint is not one of the characteristics of Ness's writing style in the first two books. While you would expect the chapters on the first-person account of Todd to ramble especially with all the Noise, the chapters that focus on Viola's account of her story can sometimes get discombobulated as well. The effect is relevant to the main storyline though; as the war becomes more and more evident, Ness's writing becomes more frantic and engaging.

I wonder why The Knife of Never Letting Go and the The Ask and the Answer hasn't found a strong following in the US and even here in the Philippines. All the awards the first book has won are richly deserved. While Ness may be living in the UK, there's nothing particularly British about the books. Ness has lived in both sides of the Atlantic, having been born and educated in the US and eventually becoming a British citizen after having lived in the UK for several years. I think it'll take a few more years before the Chaos Walking trilogy is recognized for being the brilliant and wonderful books that they are.

Read this book if:
  1. You want to read a very satisfying albeit unconventional young adult novel.
  2. You know that men and women are indeed different but acknowledge that they are equal.
  3. You understand the evils of concentration camps, suicide bombings, and cultural insensitivities.


Vivienne said...

I just loved The Knife of Never Letting Go and I can't wait to read this one.

Peter S. said...

Hi Viviene! I loved that book too! I also love this one.

Patrick said...

Haven't heard of this yet. Will check this out. Thanks Peter!

Peter S. said...

@Patrick: I think you'll like this one.