Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Book Review Club: July

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@Barrie Summy

I suppose I should suggest beach reading, something light and frothy. This book is far from that, although it is FUN so doesn't that qualify?

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Monsters of Men
By Patrick Ness
Candlewick, 2010
Young Adult

A month or so ago, away from home and requiring an immediate book, I bought THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, the first book of Patrick Ness’s CHAOS WALKING trilogy. I’d heard about it over the past couple of years and had always kinda figured I’d read it sometime.

What. Was. I waiting for.

I finished the first book in 40 seconds flat, and casually mentioned it to our town librarian. She went online, liked what she saw, and before I could get my head together to buy the second book, THE ASK AND THE ANSWER, the whole flippin’ trilogy appeared on the YA shelf beside the circulation desk. (I love our library.)

MONSTERS OF MEN, the third and final book, just won its author the Carnegie Medal, the UK’s version of the Newbery Medal and a big, huge deal. (The first two books were short-listed.) While I have a minor bone to pick with this final book, I’m deeply happy that Ness has been honored for it.

The books are set on a planet that humans are beginning to colonize, despite the fact that it’s already home to the gentle, humanoid Spackle. (Avatarish, yes. More on that later.) The first group of humans finds immediately that something about the planet allows everyone to “hear” the thoughts in a man’s head, resulting in a cacophony quickly dubbed “Noise.”

Human women can hear the men’s Noise, but generate none of their own—a man’s thoughts and intentions are visible to everyone, and a woman’s to no one. (A friend of mine said: “And this differs from reality…how?”)

All Spackle have Noise, regardless of sex. It’s how they communicate.

Animals can communicate that way, too, although at an elementary level. Here’s how the first book begins:

The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say. About anything.

“Need a poo, Todd.”

“Shut up, Manchee.”

“Poo. Poo, Todd.”
Ness has a wonderful time exploring the implications of Noise. Some human men become resentful and suspicious of the women, some women a tad contemptuous of the men. The lack of privacy drives some men nuts but inspires others to use Noise for personal power. Young people—who’ve known no other planet—accept Noise as the air they breathe.

The “Todd” whose dog needs a poo is just such a young person, our narrator for all of the first book and large parts of the other two. The first book follows him as he escapes his home village, called Prentisstown after its despotic Mayor, under a threat he doesn’t understand. As he flees through the woods, he meets Viola, the first female he’s ever known because Prentisstown’s women died mysteriously in his infancy. Viola is the vanguard of another wave of human settlers—she and her parents took off from the fleet on a scouting mission, and her parents were killed when their ship crash-landed. She’s already been threatened by Prentisstown’s madman minister, so she and Todd join forces, mutually suspicious.

The first book is a picaresque adventure, as Todd and Viola make their way to what they hope will be a safe haven, pursued for enigmatic reasons by the minister and, eventually, an entire army from Prentisstown. It’s also about the growing trust between Todd and Viola, and eventually their love for one another. In the second book, they are separated but still bonded, managing to survive the rival forces in yet another dictatorship.

In the third book, MONSTERS OF MEN, the humans are at war with the Spackle, who have had about enough of being subjugated and enslaved. Two factions battle within the human camp. Noise is explained, as well as the Spackle’s Zen-like relationship to it and their planet. It turns out Noise can be manipulated if a man gets it under control. We see the politics of the human factions but also among the Spackle, as narration flips from Todd to Viola to the freed Spackle slave 1017.

In this final book and as a whole, CHAOS WALKING is one boy’s coming-of age story but also a fascinating look at larger issues: why societies fester, why dictators thrive, why we conform, why we kill, why we go to war, and what will stop us. It sets up a series of almost unsolvable conundrums, in which everyone on every side has an unarguable reason to fight, and yet fighting will probably kill them all. There’s a cliffhanger about every ten pages. Don’t plan to sleep much until you finish it.

This last book does come perilously close to being just another Clueless European Colonist vs Noble Savage story, particularly because the Spackle are so psychically entwined with their planet. (They call themselves The Land.) It mostly escapes the yech factor because Noise is such an oddball concept and because the characters are so wonderfully complex and involving. Even the biggest, baddest villain has achingly sympathetic moments.

For me, the one problem with this book is the relationship between Todd and Viola. We keep being told that they will do anything to save each other, even if it means violating core ethics, and yet the bond between them is never as deeply felt as it is in the first book. This reads as an oversight rather than a deliberate plot point.

Fortunately, there’s so much going on and it’s all so much fun that the reader—this one, anyway—accepts what she’s told and gets on with it.


Barrie said...

We have a great librarian too. Totally makes a difference, doesn't it? These books sound fascinating. I have to say that I've now read several of the books you recommended and been thrilled. So, I'll be checking these out, too. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Yes, it does qualify as a beach read - lol! Any book you can get lost in is well worth reading and this one sounds quite fascinating! Oh, I see Barrie already used that word - well, she's right. :)

Alyssa Goodnight said...

I can imagine myself getting sucked into this one. Particularly with a cliffhanger every ten pages! :)

Great, fair-minded review!
And hooray for great libraries and the great librarians who run them!

Ellen Booraem said...

Our town would be diminished by at least half without our library. It and the school are our heart.

I guess I can see reading this on the beach--just make sure you have a good strong sunblock, because you may forget where you are!

Linda McLaughlin said...

This does sound like a fascinating and fun trilogy. I'm a big Hunger Games fan and this sounds like something I'd enjoy, too. Thanks for recommending it, and for stopping by my blog for a visit.

Barbilou said...

Well, crap, now I have to buy these, too!