Part commentary on the age of information and part indictment of prejudice, Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy is a marvelous metaphor for what faces kids today and how their struggle to adulthood is complicated by the readily available mixed bag of information swirling around them. The adults are not faring very well either.
What could be just one of the many new books with the “colonizing another planet because we’ve destroyed our own” theme, this trilogy creates a world with a rich language all its own, idealized versions of familiar animals, and a pioneer spirit that ignites men and women towards their own version of utopia–good and bad.
“The Knife of Never Letting Go” introduces Todd, a boy living in a small settlement called Prentisstown. By Prentisstown’s standards, he is about to become a man at age 13. He is the youngest person in his all male town, the women having died from the noise germ. This same germ, supposedly given to them by Spackle, the indigenous people of the planet, renders all males able to hear one another’s thoughts. It is a constant roar of noise: other men’s thoughts, fears, desires and the static of attempting to block what they can from each other.
While tramping around in the nearby swamp with his dog, Machee, Todd suddenly experiences silence for the first time in his life. What he discovers is a girl, Viola, who is guarding the bodies of her dead parents who were killed when their scout ship crash landed. Todd cannot hear her thoughts and with Viola’s silence comes the realization that everything he was told about his history and the death of his mother may have been a lie. This new information forces Todd’s two guardians to help him escape the men of Prentisstown and the town’s mayor, whose power depends on his manipulation of information. Viola joins Todd on his quest to find the settlement of Haven only to discover that it may not offer the safety they seek.
The second book in the trilogy, “The Ask and The Answer”, is, as with most middle books of trilogies, the set up for the conclusion. Here, Viola and Todd are separated and become pawns of two powerful forces. The Answer are led by a healing woman, Mistress Coyle, who rebel against Mayor Prentiss’s increasing marginalization of the women of the town. The Ask are Mayor Prentiss’s military rebuttal to the rebels as he begins to ramp up his take over of the town. Both, however, have a history of violence, prejudice and fear of the indigenous Spackle, and a love of power. As Mistress Coyle teaches Viola the art of healing, she also exploits her knowledge of and affection towards Todd. The Mayor exploits Todd’s affection for Viola as he grooms him to be his right hand man. Both Todd and Viola struggle with whether or not to trust their new “mentors” while they try to find their way back to each other.
“Monsters of Men”, the last book of the trilogy, is the predictable battle approached in an unpredictable way. When another scout ship from Viola’s people lands at Haven, the Ask and the Answer race to meet it and gain their allegiance. What follows is the chaos of everyone’s version of what this new world should be and how to achieve that. Is violence the answer to peace?
The most interesting part of the concluding book is the introduction of the voice of the Spackle and their use of the “noise” which allows them all to think and act as one voice. When one of their own returns from slavery, he brings with him a need for vengeance against man, a vengeance the usually single and united voice of the Spackle must confront.
Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy is about a lot of things: genocide, slavery, misogyny, coming of age, and colonization to name just a few. The books conjure a fantastic yet familiar world that deals with all of those weighty issues in a thoughtful but objective way. What could become preachy and a little too rife with metaphor, is simply a journey to another world where a boy has to decide what kind of world he wants to live in and what kind of man he wants to become.
Something should also be said about the animals in the books who become characters in and of themselves. In Todd’s world, animals’ thoughts are heard by humans with both humorous and heart breaking results. His loyal dog Manchee, the fearless horses Angharrad and Acorn and the innocent herd animals of the valley add a gentleness and sense of wonder to Ness’s world.