I've been hooked on books since childhood, and still am. I usually have at least three books going at any given time. After nearly two decades teaching middle school, I've developed strong opinions about YA fiction. A married mother of many adult children, and a practicing Catholic, my moral paradigms do play into my reviews.
The Knife of Never Letting Go: Book one in the trilogy called Chaos Walking, by Patrick Ness.
Todd Hewitt, a teenager on the cusp of manhood, appears to live in a small town dominated by angry male religious nutcases. He's had an unusual upbringing, since all the women have died. All of them. In fact, he has never seen a woman at all. He's being raised by Ben and Cillian, life partners. And the men in town have all caught a germ that renders their thoughts-- all thoughts, all the time-- audible to others.
Now stop and think for a moment what your life would be life if every single thing you ever thought could be picked up by everyone around you, and vice versa. (Hence the title of the series, CHAOS WALKING.)
The constant barrage of thoughts is called The Noise, and learning to control your noise is problematic. Lying is of course virtually impossible. Yet everyone in his town is in fact lying to him. (I struggled a bit with how such a huge lie would be possible, but accepted it as part of the plot line.) As he and his faithful dog Manchee begin to discover, things in Prentisstown are not at all what they seem. The reader soon learns that Prentisstown is on an alien world, and was a colony-based settlement that has been cut off from all other settlements for decades now.
Why? What made them be cut off? That question is central to the novel. What great and horrible secret are the men of Prentisstown hiding?
Todd discovers a new something in the swamp near the edge of town, a lack of noise, an empty silence, and sees his first ever female human person. Females apparently do not project their Noise like males do, Todd learns. But they do still HEAR the Noise of men. --- Now stop and think about THAT for a moment: men can hear all other men, and women can hear all men, but women get to keep their thoughts to themselves and choose what to share and say. Fascinating premise. Society would totally change, indeed. Kudos to the author for this highly original premise.
In very short order, Todd and Manchee must flee Prentisstown, and the female (Viola) comes with them, literally running through the woods across this alien world to the next settlement, then the next, trying to find safety and answers. Todd is carrying a big ole knife from his father figure, and it is a large part of his story, hence the title of the novel. But they are being pursued. Relentlessly, in fact. Some of the long flight across the planet was dull, and some of it felt manipulative, but along the way facts are gained and things are --at least partially --explained.The ostacles they encountered felt realistic, as did the reactions of various townspeople to discovering "Prentisstowners" in their settlements. Todd begins to learn that whathe was raised to believe was mostly a lie, or at best a spin on the truth.
I found the book hard to put down, and filled with things to ponder. I liked Todd and wanted him to do well, wanted him to find what he was seeking and make good choices. Liking the hero/heroine is rather central to enjoying the story at hand. I liked Viola too but did not really connect with her in the first book.
I was broken-hearted at the choice Todd has to make in the river regarding Manchee, (Shades of "Where The Red Fern Grows", and "Old Yeller") and felt exploited by the return and then almost immediate disappearance of his mother-substitute, Ben. I was also irritated that The Book he carries did not get read along the way: Seems to me he would have been DYING to get it read.
However, I liked the way Todd was growing up: he is forced to make difficult choices when right and wrong are not so clear cut and clean. I liked the way the author avoided romance between Todd and Viola for the most part. No sex in this book, just a growing trust and friendship that may or may not blossom into more in book two. I personally really liked the vernacular way of speaking, though some reviewers found it annoying, and the interesting font changes, especially early on when it represents The Noise. Todd has a great male voice/ presence. I did get quite sick of the word "effing" and wanted the kid to just go ahead and cuss already. Say the fucking word. Quit pretending not to cuss.
The novel appealed to me on many levels. It addresses some BIG questions, especially to those of us who grew up near repressive religious figures, controlling southern men who preach one thing and do another. Mayor Prentiss is a terrifyingly real figure to me. I knew men like him: I still do. But how do we respond to people like him without hurting others? Also the whole alien race question, which is brought up but not resolved in this first installment. Who are the Spackle? Not quite humanoid, but not terribly alien either, they seem to be sentient -- but since we cannot communicate with them, what DO we do? Leave the planet? Force them off of it? Live side by side without communicating? What if they attack us first?
However, The book is pretty brutal and will sadly not be going into my 8th grade classroom, nor onto on my recommend-for-under-16-years-old list. LOTS of killing. People being slaughtered left and right. Tough choices to be made by young people who should not yet be forced to make such terrible decisions. Manchee's final scene, where Todd makes the right choice but at a terrible cost. Repressive controlling authority figures who lie, cheat, steal, murder, and beat up children. A disturbing scene when Todd unnecessarily murders a Spackle, one of the alien natives. An entire town is wiped out and more are likely to be destroyed. There's relentless violence. But, like The Hunger Games, the violence serves a purpose.
By and large, I loved this novel and am eagerly devouring Book Two right now, The Ask and The Answer. This is book one of a series of three, and I am glad I did not find it until all three books were published, because (warning) book one ends on a HUGE cliffhanger that would have driven me nuts.
Looking forward to the rest of the series.