Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review: The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness
Published: Walker & Co. (2009), Candlewick Press (2010)
Series: Book 2 of Chaos Walking

Warning: This is the second book in the series, so the first book is spoiled in this review (and even in the blurb describing the plot).  If you have not read The Knife of Never Letting Go, continue at your own risk.

The Book:

 “Reaching the end of their flight in THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, Todd and Viola did not find healing and hope in Haven. They found instead their worst enemy, Mayor Prentiss, waiting to welcome them to New Prentisstown. There they are forced into separate lives: Todd to prison, and Viola to a house of healing where her wounds are treated. Soon Viola is swept into the ruthless activities of the Answer, while Todd faces impossible choices when forced to join the mayor’s oppressive new regime. In alternating narratives the two struggle to reconcile their own dubious actions with their deepest beliefs. Torn by confusion and compromise, suspicion and betrayal, can their trust in each other possibly survive?” ~From the Publisher

The Ask and the Answer picks up right where The Knife of Never Letting Go’s cliffhanger ending left off, and then carries the story forward to yet another cliffhanger.  This novel is the middle segment of the larger story of the Chaos Walking series, so reading the first book is necessary to appreciating this one.  

My Thoughts:

While The Knife of Never Letting Go was told solely from the point of view of Todd Hewitt, The Ask and the Answer switches between Todd and Viola.  Viola is the crash-landed scout from an approaching colonist spaceship who fled Prentisstown with Todd in the previous novel.  Todd’s narration is the same vaguely southern, illiterate stream of consciousness as in the previous book, but the new voice of Viola is much more orderly and grammatically correct.  Despite these differences, both of the narrators relate their stories in an informal, conversational manner.  I appreciated Ness’s decision to open up Viola’s mind to the reader in this way, since she was often inscrutable in the first book.  When the story was filtered solely through Todd, his early difficulties in understanding tone, facial expressions, and body language often left us with very little idea of what Viola felt and thought. Now that Viola’s thoughts are visible to the reader, however, it becomes clear that she is not actually any more intelligent than Todd.  Given Viola’s education and Todd’s lack of it, I had assumed (apparently unfairly) that she was the smarter of the two.   Throughout The Ask and the Answer, both Todd and Viola are constantly tricked and manipulated, and their own lack of foresight and understanding often gets them and those around them into deadly trouble.

Though Todd and Viola seemed infinitely gullible, they were still dynamic main characters. Both of them change drastically throughout the narrative, even though I do not particularly like the direction they’re going. Ness addresses many morally difficult ideas in this novel, such as the dangers of dehumanization and rationalization, and how societal pressure can cause people to do truly terrible things.  The Ask and the Answer paints an uncomfortably ugly picture of how far people will allow themselves to be pushed in exchange for personal safety.  For me, the picture was a little too ugly.  I completely lost all of my sympathy for Todd and Viola.  I wholly agree with the novel’s assertion that a person is defined by the decisions that they make.   Therefore, I became irritated every time the narrative hinted that Todd was ‘still innocent’ or ‘still a good person’, despite the actions he chose to take.   In my opinion, actions speak much louder than vague, private misgivings. 

The Ask and the Answer also has a bigger cast that the first installment of the series.  Since the first book was basically a long chase scene, there was little opportunity to get to know any of the secondary characters.  In the second novel, a lot of the action is psychological and political, so the reader has a chance to learn more about the strong supporting cast.  I was most surprised by the development of Mayor Prentiss’ son, Davy.  Davy was a cardboard villain in the previous book, but here we see his personal struggles as he hopelessly tries to make his father proud.   We also get to know a rebellious Spackle,  #1017, and the questionably moral healer and insurgent, Mistress Coyle.  In fact, the supporting cast was so compelling that I often found myself rooting for the secondary characters instead of Todd and Viola.

There are a few minor continuing problems that I have with this story, which I had hoped to see resolved in this second book.  For instance, why is Todd so special?  Viola is an important political asset in dealing with the coming colonist ship, but Todd is just a random kid.  Also, what are the motivations of the Prentisstown leaders?  I was really hoping for a more detailed explanation than Noise-induced insanity.  I dislike it when insanity is used as a motivator in fiction, because it often seems like a get-out-of-characterization-free card.  There is still one book to go, so I’m hoping Monsters of Men will answer all the questions I have left!

My Rating: 3/5

The second installment of the Chaos Walking series is just as strong as the first.  While the first book was an adrenaline-charged chase, the second is more contemplative.  The story of occupation, oppression, and rebellion gives an unapologetically harsh view of humanity that does not exclude the easily manipulated protagonists.  While other readers might still be on Todd and Viola’s side at the end, my sympathy for them dissolved somewhere midway through.  However, even without feeling any sympathy for the protagonists, the strong supporting cast kept me hooked until the end.  I’m looking forward to reading the final book of the trilogy!

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