Monday, January 27, 2014

The Chaos Walking Trilogy, by Patrick Ness


Patrick Ness is a fairly recently discovered author for me, and he's fast becoming one of my favorite YA writers.  His Chaos Walking series, including The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and The Answer, and Monsters of Men, is one of the best YA science fiction trilogies I've read in quite a while.  And I say that only have read the first two (I'm impatiently awaiting the arrival of the third title in my holds list at the local library).

All three books are set on New World (which is relatively Earth-like, but definitely not Earth).  The story begins in the small village of Prentisstown, where inexplicably, there are no women, and all the surviving men have been cursed with telepathy.  They can all hear each other's thoughts, all the time, involuntarily.  You can't hide your own thoughts, and you can't keep from hearing other men's thoughts.  They call the resulting omnipresent buzz of thought "Noise."

The main character is a young man called Todd Hewitt, who is about to turn fourteen and thus become an adult in the eyes of his society.  In fact, Todd is the last boy in Prentisstown, because of the aforementioned lack of women.  A traumatic turn of events forces Todd to flee the town with only his dog.  As he journeys away from everything he knows, he encounters two beings:  an alien, and a girl.

When Todd meets the alien, we learn that the cause of the Noise among men was a virus released by the native dominant species of New World (called the Spackle by the human settlers because of their characteristic vocalization).  We hear the old, old story - humans arrive in a new place, discover that place is already claimed by others, and set about taking over the place by violence.  The humans won the war, but the Noise virus was the Spackles' last great attempt at fighting back.  Telepathy is the Spackles' normal method of communication, by the way; their ability to vocalize sounds is limited.

When Todd meets the girl (Viola), he realizes that she is the first of the second wave of settlers heading to New World.  Viola and her family were in a scout ship coming ahead of the main body of settlers, but their ship crashed, killig everyone aboard except Viola.  Viola and Todd set off toghether to find Haven, a semi-mythological paradise town, Todd in hopes of finding a new home, and Viola in hopes of warning the oncoming colonization ships of the situation on New World.  They are pursued by the Mayor of Prentisstown, who quickly develops into a complex and well-realized villain.  The Mayor wants Todd to see him as a father figure, but Todd hates him for his misdeeds during the Spackle War.  Viola eventually finds her own nemesis, Mistress Coyle, who opposed the Mayor during the Spackle War and does again during the present conflict.

And conflict there is, in spades.  The Mayor is no longer satisfied with Prentisstown; he wants to be President of New World, and he's starting the takeover with the town of Haven.  The people of Haven, of course, are having none of that; they're familiar with the Mayor's action during the Spackle war and quickly set up resistance to his occupying army.

There's a lot more to the story here that's I"m trying not to give away.  Instead, let me talk about some of the things I think make these books so great.  First, they deal with really hard questions.  When is it justified to kill in defense of yourself or your own?  When does defense become aggression?  How far would you be willing to go to depose an evil leader?  These are questions that adults wrestle with, and I really like the way Ness presents them to his audience.  The situation - in the far future, on a different planet - is just removed enough pre-teens and teens might be able to consider it dispassionately; but on the other hand, the characters are easy to relate to, allowing readers to put themselves in Todd and Viola's shoes.

The second thing I really like about these books is the relationship that develops between Todd and Viola.  They have the beginning of a shy, gawky, devoted love for each other.  And it's actual love - concern for the other's well being, putting your partner's needs above your own - not the instant attraction "oooh, he's handsome let's fall in bed" reaction that so many love stories default to these days.  And, call me a prude, I like that I'm 2/3s done with the series and there are no signs of their relationship turning physical.  Todd and Viola actually take time to get to know each other and be sure of their feelings and their future.  Trust me on this - I'm a veteran of 15 years of love and 11 years of marriage built on just such a start. 

The only caveat I'll offer here is that these are YA books.  Personally, that doesn't turn me off; a good story is a good story, regardless of the exact audience the publisher aimed it at.  But I can see how some adult readers would be turned off by the YA label.  Also, I know that reading a dialect turns some people off - think Huck Finn.  I thought the dialect Ness invented was well done - it fit the people who were supposed to speak it, if you ask me - but there it is.

I've just picked up third book in the trilogy as I finished composing this post and am devouring it at great speed.  I'll post an update if the ending is a stinker, but I don't think it will me. 

P.S.  While I'm on the subject of Patrick Ness, let me also drop a recommendation for his When A Monster Calls.   It's Ness's vision of an idea from Siobhan Dowd, who sadly died from cancer before she could write it.  Dark, funny, painful, and devastatingly accurate; anyone who has lost a loved one to a lingering illness would recognize themselves in this book.