This is the best effing science fiction novel I've read all year. When you are dealing with a book as quick, direct, and brilliant as this there is little point in sticking to the usual introduction-synopsis-criticism-conclusion model of reviewing, you need to cut to the chase. The last time I was this excited about a work of SF was when I read Mortal Engines, the first installment of Philip Reeve's Hungry Cities Chronicles. However, for all that Reeve's novels were emotionally and politically aware, they remained above all else adventure novels. Ness has written a much more sophisticated work.
Todd Hewlitt is the last boy in Prentisstown, the last town on New World. He will become a man in one month's time when he turns thirteen. Until then he is stuck doing the chores no one else wants to do, like picking swamp apples in a place that looks a bit like an American frontier farming community, but with several important differences. The reason he is the last boy is because the Christian settlers who arrived from Earth seeking a better, simpler life fought a brutal war with the native Spackles during which the Spacks released a virus that killed all the women and infected all the men with Noise. This is the premise of The Knife of Never Letting Go and it is a lie.
Noise is real, though. Noise is the big novum at the heart of this novel: every man can hear the thoughts of every other man, not just by consciously eavesdropping on one another, but broadcast to everyone as a cloud of Noise. You are never alone, and in a cluster of men the Noise is unbearable. It is an idea that is both simple and familiar, but Ness wrings every last drop of innovation from it by treating this single change completely rigourously and considering all its implications. How, for example, do you sneak up on someone who can hear your thoughts approaching? How do you keep a conspiracy a secret? And Noise might not be a lie, but that doesn't mean you can't lie in the Noise. As Todd puts it:
But the Spacks are bigger and meaner looking in the Noise than in the vids, ain't they? And Noise woman have lighter hair and bigger chests and wear less clothes and are a lot freer with their affecshuns than in the vids, too. (p. 22)
Different people and different animals make different Noise, something that is represented on the page very effectively, in a manner I am going to try to approximate. Here is a crocodile:
And out there is the rushes, out there in more than one place, I can hear ‘em. Flesh, they're saying.
Flesh and feast and tooth. (p. 58)
Some animals—including Todd's pet, Manchee—can even talk. Todd is not exactly thrilled with this situation or with Manchee in general:
when I never said I wanted any dog, that what I said I wanted was for Cillian to finally fix the fissionbike so I wouldn't have to walk every forsaken place in this stupid town, but oh, no, happy birthday, Todd, here's a brand new puppy, Todd, and even tho you don't want him, even tho you never asked for him, guess who has to feed him and train him and wash him and take him for walks and listen to him jabber now he is old enough for the talking germ to set his mouth moving? Guess who?
"Poo," Manchee barks quietly to himself. "Poo, poo, poo." (pp. 3-4)
Poo is Manchee's favourite word; just because animals can talk doesn't mean they have much to say. (At least he has a slightly better vocabulary than a sheep.) He starts off the novel as a sort of comic-relief sidekick but as the novel progresses, the way Todd—and by extension the reader—perceives him changes radically in a way that is emblematic of the rest of the book.
The Knife of Never Letting Go is an archetypal bildungsroman, but the fact that it stays so true to this template never diminishes it. Todd's parents have died before the start of the book but he is looked after by surrogates, Ben and Cillian. He is then wrenched away from them and Prentisstown before he has a chance to ritually ascend to manhood. Needless to say he discovers there are other paths to becoming a man.
As I mentioned above, what we are initially told about the world by Todd in that wonderful, dialect-heavy voice turns out to be untrue. The history of the world is a grand lie that Todd uncovers over the course of the novel, so to say too much of the plot is to spoil the story. Ness ladles out the story in short servings that both sustain us and whet our appetite, closing most chapters with a small, perfectly formed cliffhanger. These never seem forced or artificial, but leave us salivating for the next portion. And on that note allow me to close my review by raging impotently at the prevalence of three-book publishing contracts and the increasing inescapability of franchise fiction. The Knife of Never Letting Go, it turns out, is Book One of the "Chaos Walking" series. It was with some anguish that I read this on the book's spine, having previously thought it was a stand-alone, and this anguish only deepened after a couple of chapters when I realised not just how good it was but Ness's talent for the cliffhanger. Sure enough the novel ends on a cliffhanger of vast proportions, which nicely rounds off this story only to open up a wider story to come. To which I can only say: bah!
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