The stakes are higher now. The Knife Of Never Letting Go—the first volume of the Chaos Walking Trilogy—was received with near-universal praise in the mainstream press and went on to win two major children's book awards. It was also adopted by the science fiction community and jointly awarded the Tiptree. There are expectations to live up to. At the same time, The Knife of Never Letting Go is a novel that opens the protagonist's and reader's eyes to the fact the world is a lie, a trick that cannot be repeated. So the ask is, how do you follow this up?
The answer, if you are Patrick Ness, is to radically subvert everything that has gone before.
The Knife Of Never Letting Go ends on an almighty cliffhanger: Todd arrives at Haven, his dying friend Viola in his arms, to warn the city of impending invasion, only to discover he is too late and the invasion, in the form of the Mayor of Prentisstown, has already arrived. The new novel does not immediately address the questions this raises. Instead we open with Viola absent and Todd tied to a chair being tortured at the Mayor's command. This foreshadows three major aspects of the novel: the isolation of its two protagonists, the ceaseless and brutal violence, and the development of the Mayor as Todd's nemesis. The Ask And The Answer is a very dark book indeed.
It turns out that the citizens of Haven surrendered without a shot being fired, despite outnumbering the Mayor's army. It has to be said that this ready capitulation is not particularly convincing—it is one of the times (and there are a few) when what is symbolically and structurally important to Ness's story takes precedence over what the reader is likely to find believable. It does open up several parallels though. We might be reminded, for example, of the bitter irony of the UN "Safe Havens" in the former Yugoslavia. Then there is the way the quisling local government welcomes the unconscionable invaders, reminiscent of Vichy France. This collaboration becomes increasingly important as the book progresses and Todd and Viola become increasingly complicit. Most immediately in our minds, however, is the invasion of Iraq because the short, sharp war for the capital—mission accomplished—is soon replaced by an asymmetrical, unpredictable insurgency. A resistance group called the Answer disappears into the countryside and starts a bombing campaign against what is now called New Prentisstown. Inevitably the Mayor creates a counter-insurgency unit called the Ask, designed superficially to extract information but in reality to achieve the same task as the Answer: to spread terror. Again parallels to Iraq are inescapable, since waterboarding is the torture of choice in the Abu Ghraib-like prisons of the Ask.
There is one fundamental difference between this conflict and those in our world: it is a literal battle of the sexes. The women flee to form the Answer, the men stay to be co-opted by the Ask. There are two things bound together here that make this possible (if not entirely plausible). Firstly, only the men have the Noise, the viral telepathy that infects almost all life on the planet. Ness is excellent at depicting the Noise and showing its inevitable divisive potential. Secondly, this is a planet of Christian settlers founded on regressive principles. Ness has always been a bit wobbly on this aspect of his world, on the uneven distribution of institutional sexism and, as with the surrender, there are notes to the schism which ring false.
The book itself splits with this division. Todd stays in Haven with the Ask whilst Viola leaves with the Answer. (Yes, she lives; at one time this would have been inevitable but these days nothing is certain.) This necessitates a shift to two narrative viewpoints. This is not a surprising choice since it literalises Ness's aim—to tell both sides of the story—but it does come with its own problems. The original novel is sustained by Todd's voice but unfortunately in comparison Viola's is both less interesting and too similar. It lacks the richness of Todd's frontier farmboy dialect and, because her concerns are identical to his, it is frequently repetitive. You could probably fill a dozen pages if you put together all the instances of Todd shouting "VIOLA!" and Viola shouting "TODD!." Likewise, despite the fact they are constantly lied to and deceived the two young protagonists never seem to learn their lesson and display a worrying credulity; both are always afraid the other has betrayed either them or their own soul. There are pages and pages of this fretting and it is tiresome stuff. Thankfully when they do meet common sense (and love) prevails. Ness is not a plot hack like Shakespeare who—as in Othello—can hang a tragedy on a misunderstanding about a handkerchief. Still there is rather too much of this minor personal angst, particularly given the extreme and extraordinary circumstances they find themselves.
I said Ness had been radical and he has. The Knife Of Never Letting Go is essentially an adventure story; a superior and serious minded example but an adventure nonetheless. The Ask And The Answer may be slower and less exhilarating to begin with than its predecessor but that is because it requires a fundamental change of mindset from the reader. This is no adventure: it is a war story in which our erstwhile hero and heroine gradually become a concentration camp guard and a suicide bomber. Although obviously co-erced to one degree or another, Ness never shies away from showing that both Todd and Viola still have agency and are morally compromised by their complicity in the inescapable crimes that surround them. As the leader of the Answer tells Viola:
"You want to see it as simple good and evil, my girl . . . The world doesn't work that way. Never has, never will." (p.352)
This is the sort of thing a wise elder often tells an idealistic youngster in books and films but it is more often than not taken to be a sign of the elder's corrupt cynicism which can be overcome by the purity of righteous youth. What gives the words power here is how unflinchingly Ness rejects this purity and remorselessly probes the ambiguities. He is also always (horribly) aware of the added dimension the Noise gives his story. When, in disguise, a male member of the Answer escorts her into Haven Viola describes it thus:
He broadcast as loud as he could that I was his prisoner on the way here, so loud other soldiers thought he was covering up for a rape he was going to commit and whistled him good luck as we passed. (p. 392)
These soldiers are the townsmen of Haven, these soldiers are part of the same army as Todd. Ness's engagement with these issues is not flawless—some of the discussion of pacifism strays into Emperor Palpatine territory (if you kill me, you become me), and the prose is a little simple to convey entirely the enormity of the topics he is addressing—but it is unusually honest and confrontational.
And there is more. I have said nothing so far about the Spackle, the alien race that is native to the planet, and I don't intend to say much. Ness likes his surprises. However, I have heard criticisms of the depiction of these indigenous people so I will say that just because Ness is confronting civil war doesn't mean he is afraid to address genocide and slavery as well. He is facing the whole of American history head on. This is the opposite of conciliatory fiction and God only knows where the last volume will take us.