Turning Evil and Staying Good
The Knife of Never Letting Go
The Ask and the Answer
Monsters of Men
by Patrick Ness
Make no mistake – these books are massive. Fortunately, they are also a quick read, not least because they are quite compelling. And although they are technically speaking a single story divided into three volumes, each volume has its own focus and narrative structure. Therefore, different readers may enjoy each part differently. Personally, book one was the great page-turner for me.
Chaos Walking is the story of Todd and Viola, two young teenagers who meet, fall in love, and save the world, more or less in that order. The world in question is an alien planet, colonised a generation ago. Todd is born there, while Viola arrives with a fleet of 5000 new colonisers. What makes the planet itself peculiar is that all creatures have Noise: they broadcast their thoughts or feelings around them for anyone or everyone to hear – constantly.
All creatures except women from Earth, that is. Their thoughts remain hidden, something which causes relations to be somewhat lopsided not only between the two protagonists but between men and women in general. Noise in general, and this lopsidedness becomes one of the central concerns of the story, and Ness examines it from every angle up to the very last page.
The story contains enough surprises that even brief summarising would risk spoilers. The main antagonist from the start is the Mayor of Prentisstown, who does his damndest to capture Todd, literally in book 1, by more sneaky means in the other two. He also plans world domination, which involves genocide of the indigenous intelligent species, the Spackle, and the civil war and war aginst the Spackles provide the focus for books 2 and 3.
Against this backdrop, alternating between Todd’s and Viola’s points of view (and in book 3 also that of a Spackle called ”the Return”), we get to follow Todd as he tries to do right and often fails. His journey is one which illustrates how easy it is to slip, step by step, into evil. Regretting his every action, he becomes the slave driver, the prison guard, the oppressor, taking away others' liberty and free will. It is an agonising tale of how you can walk, step by tiny step, into a place where you hate yourself. It is terrifying!
Ness examines numerous arguments for evil and while he never suggest that evil can be justified, he does suggest that there is redemption. At the end of a story so full of tragedy, deceit, misunderstandings, soulwrenching mistakes, and darkest disappointment, that feels like very little comfort. Still, despite its darkness (or possibly because of it) Chaos Walking is a very good read. It may draw on European colonisation of the New World, and Nazism and the Hitler Jugend, but much that has gone into the plot is more universal than that – or at least more human. And ultimately, it does what any good book should do: it stays with you and makes you think about the world around you.
So, despite its nearly 2000 pages, I highly recommend this series.