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Todd Hewitt is the only boy in a town of men. Ever since the settlers were infected with the Noise germ, Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks. Todd is just a month away from becoming a man, but in the midst of the cacophony, he knows that the town is hiding something from him — something so awful Todd is forced to flee with only his dog, whose simple, loyal voice he hears too. With hostile men from the town in pursuit, the two stumble upon a strange and eerily silent creature: a girl. Who is she? Why wasn’t she killed by the germ like all the females on New World? Propelled by Todd’s gritty narration, readers are in for a white-knuckle journey in which a boy on the cusp of manhood must unlearn everything he knows in order to figure out who he truly is.
Reaching the end of their flight in The Knife of Never Letting Go, Todd and Viola did not find healing and hope in Haven. They found instead their worst enemy, Mayor Prentiss, waiting to welcome them to New Prentisstown. There they are forced into separate lives: Todd to prison, and Viola to a house of healing where her wounds are treated. Soon Viola is swept into the ruthless activities of the Answer, while Todd faces impossible choices when forced to join the mayor’s oppressive new regime. In alternating narratives the two struggle to reconcile their own dubious actions with their deepest beliefs. Torn by confusion and compromise, suspicion and betrayal, can their trust in each other possibly survive?
As a world-ending war surges around them, Todd and Viola face monstrous decisions. The indigenous Spackle, thinking and acting as one, have mobilized to avenge their murdered people. Ruthless human leaders prepare to defend their factions at all costs, even as a convoy of new settlers approaches. And as the ceaseless Noise lays all thoughts bare, the projected will of the few threatens to overwhelm the desperate desire of the many. The consequences of each action, each word, are unspeakably vast: To follow a tyrant or a terrorist? To save the life of the one you love most, or thousands of strangers? To believe in redemption, or assume it is lost? Becoming adults amid the turmoil, Todd and Viola question all they have known, racing through horror and outrage toward a shocking finale.
And now for something completely different.
Well, no. Not completely different… but definitely different.
Why THIS book / THESE books?
It isn’t a spoiler per sey but… book 1 ends on a mother lovin’ cliffhanger.
So. Fine. I wrote up my recap, wrote up my notes, watched the movie, made the podcast episode…. And then felt compelled to read the next book. Which… also ended on a cliffhanger.
I don’t typically review for this blog the books I cover on the podcast, and I don’t really like to review parts of a series (it feels like judging a TV show on a season arc instead of the whole show and that can be profoundly unfair to many many shows who had random bummer seasons -cough Parcs and Rec, The Office, Community, Friends, Buffy, Star Trek….) but here we go!
So I knew I would want to review books 2 and 3 and I since I am lazy, have constraints on time, and don’t like doing double work… I decided to review all three but as a unit (mostly). So here you go… my review for the trilogy with some notes for the individual books themselves. (Obviously, I go into far greater depth about book 1 on the podcast that you can listen to over at the show’s website.)
Here we go!
In all three books we are on an alien planet and dealing with the concept of Noise: the unwanted and only somewhat controllable onslaught of all men’s thoughts all the time. This constant hammering of telepathic Noise sets a very distinctive tone for all three books.
It is kind of awesome.
And yes, alien planet. It is like a sci-fi western. There are “cretchers” and multiple moons and native species of … bipedal aliens with their own language and traditions….
Again. Amazing premise.
Two thoughts on tone: 1. The books are insanely action-packed. I will talk more about this in my section on Plot, but I can tell you that it is go… go go go gogogogogogo the whole way through. Especially in book 1.
2nd note on tone: It is YA in that our protagonist is a young teenage boy becoming a man… but thankfully the typical YA tropes of love triangles and misunderstandings and woe is me… are absent. This is not your typical YA book… but that makes sense, t isn’t your typical sci-fi or western either.
Do you know what staccato style is? The sentences are short, sometimes disjointed, and can be spaced out. They are quick and illicit a sense of urgency while keeping you off balance because things are constantly shifting. Book 1 had this a bit, book 2 had it a bit more, and fully half of book 3 if not 2/3rd of it… was staccato. So… be warned.
I found it worked really well to ratchet up the tension and to cut down the length…. Because let’s be honest, these books look LONG and they are long… Book 3 is just over 600 pages. Yeah, 600. Not a typo. BUT… they have pages that are mostly dialogue between multiple people… and dialogue full of declarative statements. So, yes, they are long, but they aren’t wordy if you get my distinction.
Ness is a dialogue writer with lots of action scenes. The descriptions in the books are few and far between but he does an excellent job of telling us what we need to know and showing us how the environment affects the characters instead of info-dumping all over the place. Plus, considering the subject matter, I think the style really fits the books and I really enjoyed it.
Plot/Pacing and Characters
There is actually not a lot of plot in book 1. It is a race, a dangerous race, and a lot of world and relationship building. The pace is intense. Book 1 is definitely an adrenaline run. There are also only a few characters and we spend the book from the perception of 1 specifically.
Book 2 lets us catch our breath a bit in terms of pace but there is vastly more plot… and the story gets more complicated with the addition of a bunch of new characters. We also get the first person POV of two characters instead of just one which is a needed change. Like the universe and the problems contained within, things and voices get a lot more complex in book 2. There are definitely thorny questions of ethics that start being discussed and shifting loyalties. (Questions about terrorism, group control, ends justifying the means, does power corrupt, the balance between peace and freedom… and privacy! Such fun things to noodle over!)
And then book 3. Oy. Book 3 sort of went back to the pacing of book 1 with an action scene followed by another action scene followed by yet another action scene in a torrent that got, honestly, overwhelming and exhausting. And while I think that was part of the point (war is the main part of book 3) it made for a less enjoyable read. We also have the addition of even more characters and the POV of a third main force… and then the repetitiveness of people talking and arguing in circles and book 3 was a bit of a slog to get through. Only a few new ethic wrinkles are tossed in, it is mostly a rehash of the same dramas as before but with more voices.
Let’s talk about another P… Predictability. While some of the twists and motivations were easy to spot from orbit, there were enough surprises to keep you engaged. Also, even though some things were destined, there is something very satisfying about seeing them happen.
More on characters: I really like how Ness writes characters. Our three main characters specifically… They are flawed. They don’t know proper grammar. They are distinct. They grow and change over time (2 of them far more than a 3rd, but still). Even the antagonist characters are interesting and multi-dimensional. Ness shows us that we can root for the downfall of a character while still appreciating what they are trying to do on an intellectual level. Making our villains sympathetic and complex is difficult but Ness pulls it off.
Yes. Three times yes. Again, the 1st book is more adrenaline, the 2nd is more cerebral and the 3rd is ramifications, end results, and getting to a necessary ending. All are enjoyable and I really appreciate the nuances that Ness adds in. The stakes ratchet up, the tension increases, the death toll climbs (even though the saddest death is in book1 -I am still upset by it-) and the tone gets darker as the series continues. It is a lot like growing up.
Would I recommend them?
Sure! If you have time on your hands and are up for an adventure sci-fi western that wrestles with some great ethical dilemmas. (Spoiler warning for the podcast, but I would skip the movie based on book 1 outright because it really failed to do the story justice despite a great cast.) I have a feeling I will pitch these books to my daughter when she starts reading more grown-up YA novels and I can’t wait to discuss them with her! A resounding Yes on all three accounts because if you like book 1 you will HAVE to finish the series and yes, it is worth the time. The ending is very satisfying. I actually want to read more about this planet… if Ness picked up the story in a few generations, I would be preordering that book asap!
*** ASPECT Method (I created this, I used it, feel free to do the same.)
A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include the overall tone.
S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?
P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?
E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?
C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?
T This? Why did I read *This* book?