Chaos Walking Trilogy (Patrick Ness, 2008 – 2010) – Where everyone’s thoughts can be heard, Prentisstown has a dark secret, from which Todd must escape.
Thrills abound in the page-turning trilogy of grand ideas that are sadly lacking in subtlety.
Prentisstown is not like any other town. In this town of men, every thought can be heard in an endless stream of Noise. Then, before his 13th birthday, Todd Hewitt and his dog Manchee come upon an area of utter silence. That is where he meets the first girl he has ever known – Viola, who has no Noise. With the Mayor’s insidious secret coming to light, Todd is forced to leave his home and run for his life.
Inspired by information overload in the modern age, author Patrick Ness builds a fascinating other-world, where men struggle with their thoughts that float in the open. Secrets wield powers, and knowledge becomes a weapon. This inventive premise keeps the pages turning in The Knife of Never Letting Go.
The acclaimed Chaos Walking trilogy is followed by The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men. As the titles suggest, a great looming war will see the human race eventually embrace violence as the solution. As such, this is a heavier read than its young leads would have you believe.
For starters, the novel deals with the harrowing reality of colonisation. After all, Prentisstown did not always belong to Men. The human race had arrived on the planet from a desolate Earth, thereafter killing and enslaving the native tribe of Spackle. The war crimes, from prosecution to genocide, echo a darker part of history. This is where The Ask and the Answer stands out in its provocative message.
War is like a monster,” he says, almost to himself. “War is the devil. It starts and it consumes and it grows and grows and grows.” He’s looking at me now. “And otherwise normal men become monsters, too.
The men also ignite a second war against the Noiseless women, in a clear depiction of gender inequity. The novel however takes a cursory look into these complex themes, and a heavy-handed approach for character motivations. As a result, the portrayal of the conflict comes off too reductive, and lacking in subtlety.
This rings especially true for Monsters of Men, where the Mayor’s ruling quickly escalates in violence in face of rising resistance. Antagonists show little moral ambiguity, falling neatly into clear-cut labels of ‘terrorist’ and ‘dictator’. That is before both camps devolve into self-serving madmen, making it difficult to root for either.
War makes monsters of men, you once said to me Todd. Well, so does too much knowledge. Too much knowledge of your fellow man, too much knowledge of his weakness, his pathetic greed and vanity, and how laughably easy it is to control him.
The rest of the story hence loses its initial thrills and intrigue, despite a strong final chapter. Part of it is due to the clunky writing, which involves the unwieldy switch between multiple perspectives. Repeated exchanges of “Todd!” and “Viola!” also feel particularly icky.
While the execution could be much better, Chaos Walking is still a great starting point of discussion for socially relevant themes among teen readers. Should older readers be keen, you would best be prepared to cringe through a good amount of contrived romance, where principles are abandoned in the name of love.