Monday, 24 May 2010

Carnegie review: The Ask and the Answer

Patrick Ness has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal 2010 for his teenage novel, The Ask and the Answer. This is his fourth book: the first two were for adults, and this one is the middle volume of his Chaos Walking trilogy which began with The Knife of Never Letting Go. That title was also nominated for the Carnegie Medal and won the 2008 Guardian Children's Fiction prize, the Booktrust Teenage Prize and the James Tiptree Jr Award, so Ness comes with a good track record.

It's quite hard to review The Ask and the Answer without giving away too much of the plot of the first novel for those who haven't read it yet. A quick summary - Todd lives in Prentisstown, which he believes to be the only remaining settlement on the New World. It seems that on arrival on this planet, sickness killed all the women and all the men found their thoughts, their Noise, could be heard by everyone - making a man "chaos walking", as in the trilogy title. However, Todd is shocked to discover a pool of silence which, he is even more shocked to find, surrounds a girl! He and Viola are soon fleeing for their lives and, as they travel, Todd begins to discover that everything he thought was true was a lie. I read many parts of this book with my hand to my mouth in fear, so tense was the writing.

The Ask and the Answer is equally exciting. I find it amazing that although several people had read the first book, I am the first to have borrowed this one - I just couldn't wait to find out what happened next! Todd and Viola have walked into a trap set by their worst enemy, and for much of the book they are kept apart with alternate sections of the narrative told in each of their voices. Todd is forced to serve the Mayor, an example of power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely, while Viola finds herself amongst the Answer, a terrorist organisation run by women. But are they any better than the Mayor and his cruel army? Although they have seemingly ended up on opposing sides, Todd and Viola never lose faith in one another and eventually they are able to come together to fight for what they believe is right. Whether they win or not is a matter for the final part of the trilogy.

This is gripping writing which can be taken at face value as an adventure story or used to ask deeper, moral questions on the nature of power, whether war or terrorism can ever be justified, the meaning of privacy and the role of women in society. Todd and Viola are both strong characters with a strong sense of justice but even they find it hard to stick to their principles in the face of violence and corruption. Minor characters are equally well drawn, such as the Mayor's weak son, Davy, who grows under Todd's influence from being a swaggering bully to at least a kind of redemption at the end. Even the animals have character - they too have Noise on New World, and Ness uses this to express exactly the nature of an excitable little dog (Manchee in book one) and an affectionate, nervous horse (Angharrad in book two). The way Todd interacts with these creatures also tells us a lot about his personality.

What happens next? You will need to read book three, Monsters of Men. You can find more information about it in previous posts about Patrick Ness, on CMIS Fiction Focus and the Ultimate Book Guide, which also has an interview with him.

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