Some time ago, I read A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. It was jaw-droppingly excellent and I vowed to seek out more by the author. His magnum opus so far seems to be the Chaos Walking trilogy of young adult books, so it was there I headed next…
Chaos Walking consists of three books: The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men (which, like A Monster Calls, won a Carnegie medal).
The Chaos Walking books exist in a very similar space as Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials. A boy and a girl fall in love and struggle to right wrongs in a fantastic world. Characters are complex and morality is ambiguous. The Chaos Walking books, however, are far more harrowing than His Dark Materials.
The books are set on a planet colonised a generation past by settlers looking for a simpler, low-technology life. Not long after they settled, a war broke out with the native Spackle that humans won with superior fire-power. As the story begins, there are two particularly salient features of this world: First, some ‘germ’ causes every living thing on the planet to constantly and uncontrollably broadcast its thoughts, man and animal alike. Second, all of the women seem to be dead and gone.
The first book starts out with Todd wandering around with his dog, Manchee. This opening scene is fantastic. It reveals the central fantastic premise with great humour (what would a dog say if it could talk?) and we’re quickly smitten by the two. Just a few pages in, I was confident enough to tell my significant other that she would love it. But then I read a few pages more, and another few, and I realised that though there was humour to be found, this book was altogether darker and more savage than the first few pages would suggest.
Todd and Manchee are forced to flee from their home when the mayor decides to go to war. After doing so, they come across Viola, a girl around Todd’s age — and the first woman that Todd has ever seen — who has crash landed while doing a scouting mission for a new colonial group. Together they embark on a journey towards Haven, moving from town to town, constantly hearing tales of the havoc that the mayor is wrecking as he follows their path.
The first volume ends with their arrival at Haven, which is, predictably enough, not quite as much of a haven as they might have hoped. The second volume details the guerilla warfare that breaks out around the occupied city, and the third expands on the Spackle and the Viola’s colonial compatriots. At no point during the three books does anything come easy to Todd and Viola. Every choice presents a moral quagmire and misery and injustice is heaped on violence and betrayal. There’s joy to be found, but doing so requires the characters (and reader) to wade through pain and sadness and anger. It is, in short, tough going (though very well written and literally [at least in my case] breath-takingly exciting). I rarely become this emotionally invested in books. The last time would have been…hmm…A Monster Calls.
There’s tonnes of great stuff in there. The characters are mighty — the book is a masterclass in human complexity and psychological realism. The moral themes (touching on warfare, slavery, gender, childhood and many other things) are sensitive and thoughtful and never didactic. Ness also does really good work with the thought-broadcasting conceit. This side of things develops naturally and fully, in just the way one would hope from a well crafted fantasy novel.
The story has, I was very glad to find, a hopeful and even happy ending (which felt far from assured for the most part). If you feel up to it, this trilogy packs quite a punch — trauma and catharsis all in one. Highly recommended.