Jun 29, 2009

The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

Second books in a series are always tricky to write about, especially in a series as easy to spoil as the Chaos Walking trilogy. Not that I think that knowing plot details in advance will necessarily ruin your reading experience—but I do think that finding out for yourself is a lot more fun, and so I do my best never too give too much away. And this is why, in this case, I will refrain from even writing a plot summary. Suffice to say that The Ask and the Answer picks up right where The Knife of Never Letting Go left off, and that instead of one narrator, it has two. Those who have read the first book will have no trouble guessing who the second one is.

Let me get this out of the way: wow. Patrick Ness takes this series in a direction that was, for me, a little unexpected, though to be honest I wasn’t even quite sure what I was expecting. Don’t get me wrong, the main themes of The Knife of Never Letting Go—gender and identity and growing up and violence—are still here, but he takes them further, approaches them from different angles, and adds new ones. And the whole thing is just so rich and complex I wanted to explode.

This is a serious, dark and frightening book; a book in which horrible things happen. And worse than that, it's a book in which characters you care about do horrible things. But in fiction, as in life, desperate situations lead to desperate actions. The book opens with the following famous quote by Friedrich Nietzsche, which couldn’t be more appropriate:
Battle not with monsters
lest you become a monster
and if you gaze into the abyss
the abyss gazes into you.
War makes people do monstrous things, even if for the best of reasons. The fact that Patrick Ness uses two narrators is brilliant because we get to see both sides of the war. We see how each side perceives the actions of the other, and how each tries to dehumanize the other. Though one of the sides is, for me at least, easier to sympathize with than the other, things are really not as simple as determining who’s right and who’s wrong, who's good and who's bad. And as the story advances, the complexity only increases. The book is very political, but it’s also very personal. Propaganda, mistrust, death, loss, fear, activism and terrorism, misinformation, control, manipulation, torture: they’re all here, seen through the eyes of two kids who are caught in the middle of it all.

Reading The Ask and the Answer reminded me of WW2, of Iran, of so much of what happens in the world today, of all the horrible things human beings do to one another, and of all the ways in which we try to justify them. This is an uncomfortable book, but it’s also so full of tender moments, of moving scenes, of people remaining human even in the most dehumanizing of circumstances. I cried, and not just once. Or twice. Or…well, you get the point.

Even though the story in unflinchingly dark, I don’t think that in the end this is going to be a bleak trilogy. The world is set in would be called a dystopia, yes, and it’s a daring story – a story that, like all the best ones, asks several uncomfortable questions and doesn’t offer clear or comforting answers. But I want to believe that in the end these characters I so love are going to be okay. Of course, it will be a year at the very least until we find out. The Ask and the Answer has another one of those endings, and I have no idea when the final book in the trilogy will be out. I hope this doesn’t dissuade you from reading this series, but be prepared to suffer while you wait for the final book.

I can already tell that this is going to become one of my go-to series, one of those series I refer people to when they question the relevance of children’s and YA literature or of speculative fiction. Because if these books are not relevant—and subtle, touching, smart and complex—then I don’t know what is.

Other Opinions:
Karin’s Book Nook
Guys Lit Wire
Jenny's Books
Persnickety Snark
Kids Lit
YA Reads
Becky's Book Reviews
Bart's Bookshelf
Page 247
Rhapsody in Books

(Did I miss yours?)

Also! Exciting news for fans of this series! A spin-off short story by Patrick Ness, “The New World”, is now available at the Booktrust website. Even though the story takes place before The Knife of Never Letting Go, I wouldn't recommend reading it first—if you mind spoilers, that is—as it will inevitably give away things that are meant to be surprising in the book. Anyway, I'm saving it for this evening, as a reward to myself if I have a productive afternoon. Wish me luck!


  1. Gah! I've got to read The Knife posthaste!

  2. My main question about this one is: Is the plot a little more varied than Knife? Knife was such a page-turning chase-scene sort of book, and the monotony of it was the only thing that dragged on me. I would have liked it better had there been some down moments. I've heard this one is better at that, and perhaps the double narrator will help, but I'm probably going to go into this book with a little more trepidation than I did with Knife. I'm still undecided what to think about Knife - I've got is as a midlevel rating now - and I think the rest of the series will help me determine that.

    Sorry for the long comment.

  3. That sounds like a pretty heavy read. I have to be in the right mood for books like that.

  4. I panicked a little there, I couldn't find The Knife on my TBR list, but there it was hiding between two other books. I do like a series of books, as it is nice to have something to look forward to if you love the first one. May need to move it up the list.

  5. Oh Nymeth, Nymeth, Nymeth. We were just at the book store last night, but I'd forgotten about The Knife of Never Letting Go. Now I feel like I must go back tomorrow and pick up both of these. I'm so not kidding. These sound like books I'm absolutely going to love. What would I do without you?!!!

    And much, much luck!!! Hope you get to (got to) read the story!

  6. You've sealed the deal for me. I have to get my hands on the first one...can't wait to experience this author and this story!!

  7. Hmm interesting. I love your Nietzsche quote and this does sound like a great series.

  8. I love that quote! I'm going to have to start reading this series sometime soon. Arrrrrgh... I need more time!

  9. Nymeth, FYI I bought the two books after reading your reviews!!! The bookstore assistant (whom I know since I'm a regular patron of their bookstore and we call each other on a first name basis) was simply amazed I bought those books and she wants my opinions if I've finished reading them. ;)

  10. On my shelf staring me in the face as I write this!

  11. Loren Eaton: you do!

    Amanda: It actually is, yes. It's also action-packed, but quite a few different things happen, both in Haven and, well, elsewhere :P Also, because I know it can bother you, I have to warn you it's even more dark and violent than the first. But like in the first book, none of it is gratuitous.

    Bermudaonion: Me too. But when I am, I really love them.

    Scrap Girl: Yes, exactly! It's like spending time with old friends :)

    Debi: I actually should have said that even though this was out in the UK in May, it won't be out in the US until September. You could read them both then and suffer for book 3, or read book 1 now and suffer for book 2 :P

    Staci: Can't wait to hear your thoughts!

    Rhinoa: It's an awesome series, and I really think you'd enjoy it.

    Alice: We all do!

    Melody: Woohoo, I'm so happy that you got them :D And how cool that you have a friendly bookseller!

    Lenore: How can you resist reading it?! :P

  12. It does sound like a great series.
    'This is a serious, dark and frightening book; a book in which horrible things happen. And worse than that, it's a book in which characters you care about do horrible things.'- this alone makes me want to pick these up.
    Great review!


  13. Naida: It was seriously heartbreaking to read those scenes, but I loved them. I loved them because these things matter, and they happen. People we love and respect do things we really wish they wouldn't, and we all have to find ways to deal with that.

  14. It sounds like this book really inspired a lot of complicated emotions in you. I do have to say that your review has made me really curious about these two books. I will be looking into them in the near future, so thanks very much!

  15. Gosh, I can't wait to read this one! Especially now that I've read this review!

    I read The Kife of Never Letting Go back when it came out in 2008, and I've been waiting for the sequel for what feels like so long, I didn't remember to search it until now.

    I remember back in seventh grade, we read children's books that tried to do what The Knife did. Tried desperately. They tried to be subtle, have compelling characters, think of some interesting storiline, have an interesting dog in there, and I always thought that kids books just /always/ stunk like that... until I read the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy, 'cause now I realize it /can/ be done, and when done, the book is absolutely fabulous, and hard to put down.

  16. Zibilee, I really hope you'll give the series a try! (And sorry for not having replied before - oops)

    Anonymous: Not much longer to go until the US release, right? I hope you enjoy this one as much as the first book! And you're absolutely right - it takes a lot to do what this series does and make it work.

  17. Oooh, thanks for the link to the short story. Something to read tonight :)
    I just finished this one last night on the bus home. I tried to make it last, but I couldn't help reading it, such a page-turner, and yet a smart book. Loved it.

  18. I wanted to make it last too, but alas :( Sigh, how are we to survive until May?! :P


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