Patrick Ness’ “The Ask & the Answer” and “Monsters of Men”
The last two installments of Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy were all I read for the whole of May and for June, so far. I read both on my Kindle, so I brought the books with me wherever I went. The problem is that I didn’t have that much time to read in between projects and deadlines.
But, one Sunday afternoon, I finally put aside my work and just read and read. Aside from it being a welcome distraction, it was a really satisfying journey and adventure.
It seems like Dystopian literature is the trend that’s going to follow vampiric escapades, though perhaps not as widespread as the latter. Does this echo our fears for the future of the world? Probably.
¹ People, animals, and other creatures in New World can hear other people’s thoughts, except for women because they are, somehow, immune to it.
Though put-off by Todd’s odd voice, I’ve learned to live with it—much like the people of New World have learned to live with their Noise¹—and it got much easier to power through the rest of the series without struggling with talking like Todd in my head.
In any case, Todd’s story happens on New World, a planet colony where human settlers arrived years before the beginning of the story. Before Todd was born, there was a brutal war between the men and the indigenous species, the Spackle. The first book, The Knife of Never Letting Go (which I reviewed here), chronicles the mysterious circumstances around Todd’s imperative escape from his hometown, Prentisstown, a few days shy of being a man.
In the second book, The Ask and the Answer, Ness picks up where he left off in the first book, which is a doozy of a cliffhanger! With the Mayor of Prentisstown overtaking the whole of New World, to build a new and improved world, we are faced with his story, the motivations of a rebellion group led by women, and the ugly history that divides the world into two factions.
Because of this division, the story is told from two sides—Viola’s and Todd’s. We get to see how each side thinks and feels.
It shows the ugly brutality of impending war, and how people are faced with the difficult choice between, as Dumbledore would say, what is right and what is easy. Many good people in this story compromised because they were backed into a corner and felt like they had no other option but to give in to what is, at the core, ultimately wrong, so they could save people they cared about.
But who is viewed as the biggest villain in this book speaks the biggest truth:
“‘We are the choices we make, Todd,’ the Mayor says. ‘Nothing more, nothing less.’”
War happens when two ideas present themselves as better than the other. In The Ask and the Answer, these groups chose to duke it out in a messy, violent way, often forgetting that the true goal that they should strive for is peace for the entire nation. Instead of banding together to fight a common enemy, each division takes up arms and fights against each other, causing further dissonance and creating a lot of mistrust and suspicion, instead of unity.
Random excerpts that I loved from TAATA:
- “‘Patience, pretty girl,’ Mrs. Fox says, her face wrinkling up in a smile. ‘A thing worth learning is worth learning well.’”
- “It’s not that you should never love something so much it can control you.
It’s that you need to love something that much so that you can never be controlled.
It’s not a weakness-
It’s your best strength-”
² Referred to as The Burden, they were kept as slaves by the men and women who lived in the New World’s capital, Haven.
The third book in the trilogy, Monsters of Men, introduces another voice and dynamic into the mix, a Spackle native who grew up as one of the slaves for the citizens² of New World’s capital after the end of the first Spackle war. As he escapes from the clutches of men, he returns to the rest of his people, separate and named “The Return.”
Instead of pinpointing them as the enemy, Ness creates sympathy for them, and for this one in particular, because of his horrendous story.
One of the things that I love the most about this series is that there is a real complexity there that reflects how diverse and varied this world that we live in truly is. The best part is that we get to see the nuances of these differences, and are not just presented a table of what is good and what is bad. We face moral dilemmas while we read, too. Through Todd, Viola, and the Return, we root for a lot of people to “win,” even though what each of them want are in partial opposition to each others’ requests.
It showed me the truth: that life isn’t always easy or fair, but laying down pride, selfishness, and the need to get ahead may just get us to a place that’s best for everybody. Bradley, a newly-introduced character, chastises one of Viola’s hasty decisions and her excuse that she was faced with no other option, saying “Yes, you could have. Choices may be unbelievably hard but they’re never impossible.”
Underneath everything, there is a strong sense of forgiveness, too. Ness has written a diverse cast of characters that go through every possible emotion and feeling. It’s a wonder to see his story unfold and to watch what these people choose to do next.
Ultimately, this series is about how we, as people, are defined by the choices we make, regardless of the kind of people we think we are. It’s about having a strong sense of self and an unwavering conviction, and how that’s really different from being stubborn and proud.
There is something endearing in Todd, and how he lives with the mistakes that he makes. There is something beautiful in how these heroes soldier on for what is good, despite the odds, and the mistakes, because there is hope for forgiveness and hope for something better ahead.