The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first book in the CHAOS WALKING trilogy by Patrick Ness. The series is set on a world colonized some time ago by settlers who met a few surprises upon their arrival. The biggest was the effect of a plague/virus, which caused all males (human and animal) to uncontrollably and constantly broadcast their thoughts so everyone hears what they were thinking. Because the thoughts couldn’t be turned off or tuned out, the constant background became known as “The Noise.” The second shock was that the planet held an intelligent native species the colonists call the Spackle. Between the ensuing war with the Spackle (won by the colonists), the social disruption caused by the Noise, and the general degradation of technology (often willful — the colonists wanted to get back to more basic, traditional living), life is rougher than perhaps planned. The series focuses on two young characters: Todd and Viola.
Todd is an almost thirteen-year-old boy living a hardscrabble life in his small village Prentisstown. An orphan (his mother died, like all women, in the plague), he’s the last boy in his village and is awaiting his birthday when he will go through the rite of passage making him a man. We meet him in the swamp near town, along with his dog Manchee, whose vocalized thoughts are mostly along the lines of “have to poo” and “squirrel!”, much to Todd’s dismay. He has a violent encounter with the town preacher Aaron who seems to have something against him, and then comes across a strange “empty space” in the Noise. Returning home through the village (a nicely structured method of introducing us not only to the setting but to several characters whose thoughts we overhear, as well as to a sense of underlying menace in town), Todd tells his adopted parents Cillian and Ben. Suddenly his world is turned upside down as they tell him he has to leave the village, and soon Todd is running for his life chased by a town posse led by Mayor Prentiss and his sadistic son.
On his way out of town, he comes across the source of the earlier “empty space” — a young woman who is a precursor to a new round of settlers. Her scout ship crashed, killing her parents, and she ends up running with Todd, the two of them hoping to reach the capital city where she can communicate with her fleet and Todd can learn the truth of Prentisstown and the world, since clearly most of what he grew up knowing was a lie.
The pace of the book is pretty breakneck as Todd and Viola find only temporary safety in place after place. It’s relentless and to be honest, a little more breathing space might have been nice, though the pace dragged me along pretty easily. I will say that one problem with the pace and cliffhanger upon cliffhanger episodic nature is that some of it is driven by the “Character Who Cannot Die,” never a favorite plot device for me. I admit this became annoying and is one of the flaws that detracted quite a bit from the book.
On the other hand, the slowly developing relationship between Todd and Viola is extremely well done. Predictable at its most basic level (we pretty much know where it will end), it is complicated greatly, and made highly original, by the nature of the Noise. Not just the Noise itself but also the way it makes their relationship wholly unequal: Viola knows everything Todd is thinking but she is a closed book to him as are all women to men (a point made explicit by the metaphor of his mother’s journal which he cannot read but she can). We see Todd groping toward an understanding of not just Viola but of the female, while she must learn to navigate the treacherous shoals of knowing so much and having so much disproportionate power. This is something the world as a whole has had to learn, and as they flee we get to see several examples of how individuals or social groupings have tried to do so — some with more success than others, to say the least.
The idea of women as “other” is mirrored by the Spackle, whom we don’t see much of in this book (they were allegedly exterminated in the war) but who will come to play a larger role in the later books. One does, however, play a huge role in this book and this comes in the context of the other major themes of the story: violence and masculinity, and the way the two are linked. I don’t want to say too much about this due to spoilers, but Todd’s ability/inability to kill is a major focus, as is the impact of killing (the title leads us down that path). This is handled I thought in vivid, moving fashion and was one of my favorite aspects of the novel. In general CHAOS WALKING is a series of large ideas, dealing at various times throughout the three books with gender, power, first contact colonization, slavery, racism. Sometimes more subtly than others, but I greatly enjoyed the depth Ness is reaching for.
As mentioned, The Knife of Never Letting Go is not without its flaws. The too-tough-to-kill character is one (picture Michael Myers or Jason), the pace is at times another. Sometimes there is a fine line between incredibly moving and effective and out-and-out manipulation of the reader. This will hold true throughout the series, but it remained a highly effective reader book by book, extremely moving, and filled with a depth and level of thought that greatly enhanced the reading experience. I highly recommend it, and recommend as well you obtain it as a set as the books end on cliffhangers.