The Ask and the Answer: Memorable characters and breakneck plotting

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe 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.

~Bill Capossere


fantasy and science fiction book reviewsMay contain spoilers for The Knife of Never Letting Go

If ever there was a book to grab you by the scruff of the neck and drag you to its end, it is The Ask and The Answer. Its prequel, The Knife of Never Letting Go had already set a rip-roaring pace, and the second volume in Patrick NessCHAOS WALKING trilogy does not disappoint.

We left Todd Hewitt clutching a bleeding Viola in his arms. They had finally, finally managed to reach Haven, only to find it is not Haven at all. It has been renamed New Prentisstown by none other than the notorious Mayor Prentiss, who, if you remember, was leading the army that Todd and Viola were so desperately trying to outrun. Now we find Todd being questioned by the Mayor himself while all he can think about is Viola and whether she’s safe.

Viola, as luck has it, is fine, though Todd doesn’t know it. Thus begins the first switch between perspectives that differentiates The Ask and The Answer from its prequel. We’ve not heard the story being told by Viola before, but we find her working in a house of healing, staffed by female healers. She’s under the protection and guidance of the ambiguous Mistress Coyle, a political activist whose motivations are not always clear. But this, as we know, makes for the most intriguing characters, providing readers with a satisfyingly fleshed-out supporting cast.

Just as Todd’s voice is unforgettable, so Viola’s is clearly distinctive. And this is where Ness really comes into his own. In an overcrowded genre, his creation of memorable and individual characters is almost unrivalled.

Mayor Prentiss (now rebranded as President Prentiss of New Prentisstown) forces Todd to work with his son Davy, to build a new complex that has some part to play in the future of the town. They work alongside the Spackle (the strange alien-like creatures Todd met in The Knife of Never Letting Go, one of which he killed) and the boys are asked to brand the Spackle by cutting a loop of numbered wire into their flesh. Todd is, of course, horrified by this practice and, what’s more, horrified by the lack of compassion Davy shows in enforcing the branding.

The relationship between the two boys is complex and runs deep: Davy is constantly jealous of the attention his father shows Todd, and Mayor Prentiss only provokes these feelings further by constantly pitting the two against one another. Again, the depth of feeling and issues dealt with far surpass most of the other Dystopian YAs out there.

The same can be said for the themes the novel deals with. Mayor Prentiss is running a totalitarian town and enforcing his tyrannical views on it. At first women are only separated from the menfolk, called healers instead of doctors. But as the story progresses, they are sent to prison, tortured, and often killed. Mayor Prentiss had found the cure for Noise (the thoughts of men that can be heard out loud) but is rationing it to control society. The women, mostly the healers that Viola has fallen in with, form a resistance movement, and the whole novel takes on the feeling of moving towards something bigger and inevitable: war.

Even dealing with such hard-hitting and serious themes, the novel is buoyed by Todd Hewitt. He is hilarious and naïve and compassionate, and it is his voice that is so compelling and makes the novel such a pleasure to read. Ness is an absolute wordsmith and uses language in new and innovative ways. You’ll be racing to the book’s end, not only because of its breakneck plotting but also because with such beautifully written prose and original characters, you can’t help but read on.

~Rachael McKenzie


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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 Tor.com, 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.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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4 comments

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

  2. You are making these sound almost irresistible!

    • Thanks Marion! That's what I was aiming for. They're just such a refreshingly different take on the whole concept of Dystopian YA. Would really love to hear what you thought if/when you get round to reading them!
  3. These books I thought had their writing craft issues, but despite those remain I think one of the most compelling, thoughtful, and rewarding YA series I’ve read. I echo Rachel’s high praise.

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