The Ask and the Answer: A step up in quality

The Ask and the Answer by Patrick NessThe Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

The Ask and the Answer is the second book in Patrick Ness’ CHAOS WALKING trilogy and picks up immediately where The Knife of Never Letting Go ended, with Todd surrendering to Mayor Prentiss in order to save Viola. This is the beginning of a complex relationship between the two as well as the bifurcation of Todd and Viola’s storylines. In the first, Todd, thanks to the Mayor’s control over what happens to Viola, becomes a grudging worker in the Mayor’s (now self-styled President) consolidation of his rule in New Prentisstown. He is thrown together with the Mayor’s son Davy — a sadistic, uncivilized young man who rarely thinks beyond himself. The main thrust of their work is to oversee and band a group of Spackle slaves.

Todd, therefore, is now navigating two new relationships — an increasingly strange one with the Mayor, who seems to want to make Todd his right-hand man thanks to the qualities he sees in Todd; and another increasingly strange one with the Mayor’s son, whom Todd cannot stand at first but who gradually, even against Todd’s will, starts to grow on him. These relationships are complicated by the manner in which the Mayor treats Todd with far, far greater respect than he does his own son. Despite his hatred for the two men, Todd can’t help but move closer to them, partly due to shared experiences, partly due to the way he is treated by the Mayor, partly out of fear for Viola, but also, in more complex fashion, because in some ways the Mayor is performing effectively and with some positive results.

The alternative to the Mayor makes up Viola’s storyline. She awakens in a house of healing but in short order escapes the city with a large group of rebels known as The Answer, led by Mistress Coyle, the lead healer. The Answer then becomes either a “resistance” movement or a “terrorist” one — the characterization will depend upon the side one chooses. Their methods are hit-and-run attacks but mostly they blow things (and people) up. This is part of what moves Todd closer to the Mayor as he sees the impact of these bombings while Viola, up in the hills, does not. On the other hand, she sees the impact of the Mayor’s draconian methods, while Todd does not as they are kept secret from him.

The tension is layered — between opposing groups, between the Mayor and Coyle. And also between Todd and Viola, though not directly at first. The reader, however, sees them moving in different planes and directions and can’t help but wonder what will happen when they meet again. How will they reconcile their differing experiences and viewpoints?

Eventually, as the bombing campaign worsens, the Mayor responds with heavier methods, including torture (depicted, by the way — Ness does not gloss it over, though he doesn’t linger in graphic details) and Todd becomes part of these methods as well, not approving but also not stopping them. Instead, he tries to close himself off and simply “not feel.” This is something he is able to do better as the Mayor is teaching him to control his mind and his Noise. Meanwhile, a second scout ship — heavily armed — has landed to complicate events. All of this comes to a dramatic head at the close of the book.

The book is less episodic than The Knife of Never Letting Go, and moves at less of a breakneck pace, though it is no less compelling. Rather than being a flight and fight book, a general adventure/horror story, The Ask and the Answer is centered much more on the changes and growth within the characters and between them. And as in The Knife of Never Letting Go, Ness tackles some thoughtful topics here.

I loved the structure, which lets us see Viola and Todd slowly pulling away from each other though they themselves are unaware of it. I loved as well the way they each get sucked into the various horrors of their sides: the Mayor’s use of torture and mass punishment, Coyle’s use of bombs. I also enjoyed how both have to renegotiate their relationships with the power figures in their lives — both have a hate-grudging respect relationship with the Mayor/Coyle — as well as with a secondary more intimate relationship: Viola with a young rebel clearly interested in her romantically and Todd with his strange “friendship” with Davy.

The questions involving ends versus means, compromise versus principle, stubbornness versus commitment are wonderfully complex. As are the characters; like Todd and Viola, I found myself both detesting the two adult characters and also understanding their point of view.

While I thoroughly enjoyed The Knife of Never Letting Go, I thought The Ask and the Answer was a step up in quality. There were fewer of the plotting and pacing flaws and while The Knife of Never Letting Go had good depth to it (especially in its focus on gender and violence), I found The Ask and Answer to be more fully sophisticated in terms of the questions it offered up to the reader and its characterization, while retaining the first book’s sense of tension and suspense. It’s a strong follow up in an excellent, highly recommended series.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

View all posts by Bill Capossere

One comment

  1. I’m going to try this series in audio since it’s narrated by someone I really like.

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