October 15, 2009

BOOKS: The Ask and the Answer, Patrick Ness (2009)

The first volume in this series (The Knife of Never Letting Go, which I commented on here) was a winner of this year's Tiptree Award, given to the work of science fiction or fantasy that best addresses gender issues, and this new installment continues to deal with those issues in fascinating ways.

Teens Todd and Viola, fleeing the army that's been chasing them ever since Todd left Prentisstown, arrive in Haven, where they believe that they'll be safe. Alas, Mayor Prentiss has gotten there first and conquered Haven (it would be more accurate to say that the residents of Haven have capitulated without the least bit of struggle), which he has renamed New Prentisstown. He's also declared himself to be not merely the Mayor, but the President. Todd and Viola continue to think of him as the Mayor, and that's how I'll refer to him here.

Todd and Viola are separated -- the Mayor ultimately separates the entire town by gender, quarantining the men and women in separate districts -- and put to work. Todd doesn't want to help the Mayor's occupying army, but the Mayor has somehow developed the ability to control his Noise (the constant undercurrent of his thoughts, which is audible in men and some animals; women don't generate Noise) and use it as a weapon, giving him more control over his underlings.

There is, eventually, a rebellion against Mayor Prentiss; a group calling itself The Answer begins bombing key facilities as part of a guerrilla war against his occupation. And that's when the book gets very dark indeed, exploring issues of torture, terrorism, and genocide.

Ness is skilled at giving us characters who are neither entirely good nor evil. The Mayor is certainly the villain (and a fine one he is, too), but there are moments when his rhetoric is compelling and seductive; Mistress Coyle, who heads the Answer, is justified in her cause, but the reader can reasonably wonder if her tactics aren't sometimes more violent and bloodthirsty than is absolutely required.

The relationship between Todd and Viola continues to deepen, a pretty nifty trick on Ness's part, given that the characters are kept apart for the vast majority of the book, and the strength of their bond plays a key role in the climax of the story.

As for that climax? Well, just as in the first installment of the series, Ness ends things mid-stream without really resolving any of the ongoing storylines; the feel of the series isn't so much a trilogy -- three separate stories -- as it is of one novel that was simply too large to publish without breaking it into pieces (this volume runs just over 500 pages). But there are new plotlines established for the next volume; two new groups of players arrive on the scene in the final pages, and their presence is going to complicate the existing guerrilla war immensely.

Don't be put off by the fact that Ness's series is written for the young adult market; this is top-notch stuff, and is deep and complex enough to satisfy any adult reader.

No comments: