[Review] The Ask and the Answer – Patrick Ness

Book Title:       The Ask and the Answer (Chaos Walking Trilogy, #02)
Author:                        
Patrick Ness
Number of pages:  
519

Synopsis:

the ask and the answer - patrick ness (cover)We were in the square, in the square where I’d run, holding her, carrying her, telling her to stay alive, stay alive till we got safe, till we got to Haven so I could save her – But there weren’t no safety, no safety at all, there was just him and his men…

Fleeing before a relentless army, Todd has carried a desperately wounded Viola right into the hands of their worst enemy, Mayor Prentiss. Immediately separated from Viola and imprisoned, Todd is forced to learn the ways of the Mayor’s new order. But what secrets are hiding just outside of town? And where is Viola? Is she even still alive? And who are the mysterious Answer? And then, one day, the bombs begin to explode…

(re: Goodreads @ The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness)

Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr spoiler-less review:

– Ness is a wizard. You can’t prove me wrong.
– Character development of supporting cast is stellar. Also, a horse tries to replace Manchee–get out.
– Narrative is slower paced but the tension and suspense of all the unknowns keep the energy alive with some unexpected plot twists.
– Everything you thought you knew from the first novel may be discarded because doubt and question marks are thrown everywhere and at everything.
– The ambition in thematic discussion is elevated to regard a wider breadth of issues (i.e. war and terrorism, groupthink culture, ambiguity of morality, philosophical ideologies, hope and faith, racism, pressures of self-identity in a information-filled world).

ask-and-answer-patrick-ness-scorecard-600x300

Initial Thoughts

I think I would have enjoyed this book if I sat down and read through it instead of sporadic reading while on commute. Alas, it was still good but I think it could have been better if the circumstance of the reading environment were different. That being said, I don’t think I was able to truly capture the essence of this novel in this review…but I tried anyway.

This is the second book to the Chaos Walking Trilogy, if you would like to read my review regarding the first book, The Knife of Never Letting Go, you can click here.

Disclaimer: Potential spoilers inherent to this review from here onward.


Afterthoughts:

“We are the choices we make.”

If you followed my initial review of The Knife of Never Letting Go—though, you probably didn’t—you’ll remember that my overall opinion on the read was strongly positive despite my belief that everything and nothing happened to progress the idea of a plot. That being said, it was still a wild chase-thriller and an educational rendezvous toward becoming a man (though, Todd is very much still a boy). The reading experience was visceral, edgy, and alive. It was the beginnings of something really exciting, so maybe there was something going on.

This book, however, takes the small amount of detail that we knew about knife and starts throwing question marks at everything left and right—the plot, the characters, the themes—all of which are re-examined as our protagonists begin to mold their newfound values and tinker with their moral compasses. The frantic urgency that made up most of the excitement in the first installment is toned down. Dangers are present but subdued. For the majority of the first three-quarters of the novel, it’s all about information warfare and it’s as if the entire civilization of New World (for all we know) have come crashing together into Haven and its noiseless Eden. The more detail Ness weaves into the narrative, the more we question the validity in Todd and Viola’s actions and inactions. While this may be an onerous affair, the simmering doubt is necessary in holding the tension as events build into the final act.

Premise

Running from the army of Prentisstown, Todd and Viola thought they won the race and found safe refuge in Haven. But they were wrong, and now they’ve become separated; Todd being saddled to work under Mayor Prentiss’ watchful eye and Viola being sent to the House of Healing. While they are in the same town under the same veil of duress, neither knows of the other’s well-being. Spending their days apart, Todd and Viola unwillingly develop attachment to the hidden agendas of their respective authoritative figures. As they learn about their world, its past strife, and the indigenous Spackle, greater complication arises as the days draw increasingly closer to the arrival of settlers. With pressures of identity stacking against the hope and faith that bind Todd and Viola’s friendship, the civil unrest in Haven triggers clashing moralities to explode with one question: which truth is the answer?

Narration/Setting

As the second installment, readers can find comfort in the familiarity with Todd lingo (re: his lack of any educayshun.) The difficult part is actually (maybe) reading well articulated sentences (with proper vocabulary? blasphemous) as Ness introduces Viola as a narrator. Not only is the text (in the book at least) visually different than Todd’s, they actually do sound like separate, unique persons. The seamlessness of dual POVs in weaving one character arc to another wasn’t much of an issue as they weren’t running the same linear story for the majority of the novel. However, in the times that they did come across each other, it was excellent how the end of one perspective immediately picks up from where the previous ended; unlike other POVs that have long time lapses in between them. With Todd and Viola being separated, the world reads a lot bigger than it actually is and the early claustrophobic panic from continual noise is not as burdensome since Viola, thankfully, doesn’t suffer from being plagued by the eyes of noise. In widening the narrative scope to focus on following two unique cultures that define The Ask and The Answer, the line drawn in the sand may suggest the ease in plot predictability.

But that isn’t really the case, because we need to remember that this is Mr. Patrick Ness. And he is a wizard. I repeat: Ness is a wizard.

Yes, some details were easy to figure out but then there are those key incidences that fucking baffle you and your mind just can’t compute. Todd and Viola can’t control what they don’t have and they can’t predict what they don’t know. Carrying empty promises from key figures, they’re stifled by separation anxiety, indecision and the continual doubt in each other despite their attempts in trying to stay true to their friendship. As with information warfare, a lot of this book centers on a giant game of broken telephone; and how can you rationalize based on the willy nilly of facts? The antagonists, as I will soon discuss, are anything but those hooligans whose intentions are clear as day. You know those pointless monologues found in many, many, many, novels when primary baddies spew their grand plans before some unicorn and magical plan thwarts all of that? Yeah…no, you have no idea how the cogs churn in Mayor Prentiss or Mistress Coyle’s head because they’re terrifyingly quiet. Everything is hidden, mostly unpredictable, and so you have this narrative that seems like the path toward finality is easily sought out based on how we’re learning all sides of the same coin but it is anything but revealing. And this is what makes the pacing so robust in this sequel. War, terrorism and everything shitty in New World is scary but knowing nothing and trying to move forward is scary too.

Also, this isn’t really anything important of a critique but why the sudden bolded text pops of 1000-point font to emphasize key words? You’re basically spoiled if you have attention problems like me (via wandering eyes) and/or you can see the text leaking through the previous page. You could have gotten my attention by simply using comic sans, just sayin’.

Themes

“If you can control yourself, you can control others…if you can control information, you can control others.”

Why, why, why, why, why?

That is the question (word?) which lingers throughout The Ask and The Answer. Why one and not the other? Why are things the same but sparely different? Why?

The ambition and evolution of themes in this trilogy are quite resilient. What started as more-or-less an internal journey regarding the physically and mentally taxing nature of dehumanization and self-identity develops into an integrative narrative to regard a wider breadth of issues like: war and terrorism, groupthink culture, the ambiguity of morality, philosophical ideologies (i.e. utilitarianism, ethical egoism), hope and faith, racism, and the pressures of self-identity in a noisy, information-filled world. (Just to name a few pertinent ones.)

With every stance, there is usually a clear divide as to why we opt for one and not the other. But Ness (being the wizard that he is) has blurred all of these grey areas together and so we feel the rage and the empathy while questioning the very fiber of correctness and value in every detail. Here we have two young and naive youths who are being manipulated by their political sides in order to achieve some sort of tangible gain. Power-instilled fear is validated. Torture is validated. Collateral death is validated. What is good and noble and altruistic is all seen in perspective; and it is this sense of realism that defines the finesse in crafting a realistically fleshed out civil war and political leadership in Prentiss and Coyle. There are reasons for each and while Todd and Viola juggle between sides, it does not necessarily imply that the alternative view is any less evil than that which you follow. This is the strength of Chaos Walking; in that whatever path Todd and Viola venture into, they’ll have to live knowing that there is no one-size fits all answer and their choice defines them but doesn’t necessarily limit them. It is so complicated and so easy to understand at the same time—it is by all intents and purposes a thinker.

The commentary of noise being information-filled channels (much to our dismay of social connectedness) is one that remains unchanged and can’t really be discussed in this sequel. It’s still currently a running narrative element that hasn’t truly been explored because there are gaps in what Todd and Viola are learning about their world. So until the last book, I’ll have to leave this open-ended and pray my answers come to fruition.

Characters

“It’s not that you should never love something so much it can control you. It’s that you need to love something that much so you can never be controlled.”

What. The. Frickle. Frackle. Ness?

I was firm with who I [somewhat] despised from Knife of Never Letting Go, and then you pull this shit on me where I basically start to think in circles and show hate and empathy and a myriad of other feelings toward everything (minus Angharrad—bitch needs to calm down because YOU WILL NEVER REPLACE MANCHEE…NEVVVVERRRRRRRR). I doubt the protagonists and I doubt the vile yet true nature of the antagonists. I doubt and doubt and doubt. And yet I still try to believe in something…like how without fault, Ness will send people off the deep end and back for the fun of it all. Genius, really.

Todd is sort of an enigma in this novel. I understood his moments of demonstrated growth but I wasn’t sold on how he behaved for the most part because it was often lacking authenticity of a realistic boy (let alone championing the hero status). It’s fine that he still makes the same naive decisions and gets caught in the same wishy washy trust dilemmas because he’s still young. But with the juggling act he has to maintain with those around him, the truth is:  unless you’re some sociopath, it would seem plausible to believe that you become the lies and the truths you tell yourself. And considering the info-dump of a world they live in, Todd has indeed accepted the demons of both good and bad spectrums. It is noted that Todd, unlike many others in this info-dumb of a world, is able to feel emotion and that’s what makes him different. Yet by the same measure, his actions and thoughts when Viola is present (or not present) are sparsely different. Where is the Todd that grew up on the run from Prentisstown? The same Todd that had a profound moment when he realises he doesn’t need communication to begin understanding those around him? It feels like without Viola, he regresses back to single life of confusion and loneliness (which was basically a majority of his previous life anyways seeing as he was always the outcast-boy). I can find validation towards why he feels the need for companionship but it’s difficult to justify the emotional and romantic attachment that is clearly trying to be sold while disregarding the other qualities that come with the being young; such as being impressionable and how Todd handles his grieving and rage. It’s almost an unfair bias to say that he can get away with certain actions if they are not based around Viola but it happens. (I’m not making much sense here.)

Enter Viola: the one girl to rule them all. She was a solid voice and a worthy perspective to delve into. Her only irksome moment involved how her knees turned to jello from conversing with Lee, another boy. I won’t go much into this because it doesn’t really amount to much but perhaps it just shows that Viola is still very human, and very much a girl, despite everyone’s inclination that she’s some miracle child that will save them all (re: settler ship). And also, the fact that Todd and Viola’s relationship jumped from friends-to-love interest within the span of a few days is kind of amazing. And unrealistic.

Moving away from the protagonists, the antagonist and supporting cast really stepped up.

You start a novel and ask yourself what makes qualities make up a villain. The answer? Everything makes a true villain, even just being a character. This is how I can best explain why Mayor Prentiss and Mistress Coyle are excellent antagonists to Todd and Viola. If you wanted to go deeper, the conscious thought is the true villain of this entire series because that’s what guides the moral compass to decide the path taken by humanity…but that’s no fun. There’s something really sinister about characters that don’t speak (as much) but manipulate others to do their bidding for them. It’s even more unsettling with this particular noise-filled environment. Both characters are quite subtle in how they present themselves but their actions are anything but—and that’s what truly makes them wickedly exciting when you take into consideration the plethora of gray areas this book throws at you.

I can’t even begin to register my thoughts on how much I feel for Davy Prentiss. Fucking onions, man. It is his story line which was most poignant and raw. It is his bromance with Todd that was so awkwardly genuine. It is simply Davy Prentiss being Davy Prentiss that was so ridiculous and pompous yet so right and so real, and Ness used his wizardry ways and fucked it all up, again. First with Manchee…now with Davy; I just can’t. WHYWHYWHYWHYWHY?! (Sidenote: like I mentioned with Harry from A Monster Calls…Ness could have created a seemingly normal boy with growing feels for Todd. Think about it.) 

And praise the freaking two moons of New World that Wilf is such an awesome old man who gives me old people feels. That is all.

Overall

This sequel is a step-up-and-down for many reasons and it might go back to how Ness, a wizard, casted doubt onto every facet of the story; particularly the character development of the non-protagonists where this narrative really flourished. I can’t recall the last time that I felt like I was doing wrong for not believing in an antagonist—wait, what? The pace of reading is indeed slower but the tension and suspense is still very relevant. The narrative really picks up at the latter half of the novel and pages don’t pass by quick enough. Like the first novel, The Ask and The Answer leaves off at a critical point (and cliffhanger) that begs for the final book to be waiting on deck and ready to be opened.

“….an idea lives on after the death of the person”

//end of review.

I think this could have been longer if I wasn’t going off of a months old memory and tabbed references pages. Here’s to hoping everything made sense! I also didn’t collect as many quotes as I thought I should have buuuut oh well, nor did I spend that much time as I usually do to edit it. UGH WHATEVER, LET ME JUST GO READ MONSTERS OF MEN AHHHHH.

Cheers,
Joey

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