November 18, 2010

BOOKS: Monsters of Men, Patrick Ness (2010)

Final volume in Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy. (My thoughts on the first two volumes here and here.)

When we left the human settlers on New World, they were about to go to war, divided into two armies led by Mayor Prentiss and Mistress Coyle; our young heroes, Todd and Viola, were still separated, one in each camp, both of them struggling to find some way to head off the conflict.

But the arrival of an army of Spackle -- the planet's indigenous people, thought to have been exterminated -- with their own obvious grudges against both human groups complicates matters immensely, as does the landing of a scout ship, sent in advance of the new batch of several thousand settlers who will arrive shortly.

This is a spectacular conclusion to the series. Ness does a terrific job of alternating between his narrators -- Todd, Viola, and a new third narrator whose identity I won't give away -- in short bursts, each ending with a mini-cliffhanger. The action moves very quickly, and the story is told with great intensity.

It's not a light story. Ness is dealing with complicated and dark matters here -- terrorism, genocide, the tendency of power to corrupt and the struggle to resist that corruption, the question of whether an evil man can ever truly find redemption, the horrors of war. Throughout, Todd and Viola are forced to grapple with the consequences of their decisions, and the decisions they must make often present them with no good options.

It's hard not to compare this series with Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy; the three volumes of each were published at about the same time, and they deal with similar themes. Collins got most of the attention for her very successful books (and I enjoyed them very much), but I prefer the Ness series. I find the characters to be richer and more complicated, the moral dilemmas more intricate and involving, and the narrative far more compelling and driving.

Collins, I think, got less successful with each volume, in large part because she was repeating herself, finding an excuse to give us a new Hunger Games in the second book, and disguising an uprising against the government as Hunger Games III in the third. Where Collins presents war and violence as videogame entertainment (*), Ness presents them in more brutally realistic terms. And the relationship between Todd and Viola is a deeply moving love story, not a silly Twilight-esque triangle.

(*Yes, I know, Collins is attempting a critique of the way we turn everything into just another reality show, but that's a very hard critique to make in fiction without falling into the trap of doing just that, and Collins doesn't always avoid that trap.)

Monsters of Men is a marvelous book, and the trilogy is a major accomplishment. You do need to start with the first book; the action is continuous, and Ness doesn't waste much time providing background at the beginning of the second and third volumes. But you'll be so glad you did. Recommended with extreme enthusiasm.

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