Friday, June 26, 2009

The Ask and the Answer, by Patrick Ness

When I finished reading The Knife of Never Letting Go last year, I *almost* threw it across the room. I did in fact yell "WTF!" Um, although without the abbreviation.

I really was pissed off at the book at first. It did such a dance with its storytelling, pleasing then teasing then frustrating you, with endless twists, double-crosses, dramatic reveals, and seeming dead-ends. I just felt like the final cliffhanger went too far. (Sorry, *way* too many spoilers there to even begin to describe that. Both books, for that matter, are really difficult to describe without ruining much of their fun.)

But after a few days to cool off, I had to grudgingly admit that the book did, indeed, rock. I guess a book can't get its hooks into you like that unless it's really good. And Knife definitely has a lot going for it, with its fast-paced, coming-of-age story (imagine growing up in basically one long chase scene) and bizarro sci-fi dystopia setting (very low key, like the opposite end of the spectrum from space opera). And "the Noise." Can't forget "the Noise." In this world, everyone can hear what you're thinking. If you're a guy, that is. Or an animal. (Hence the book's genius opening line, "The first thing you find out when your dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say.")

Many, many critics agreed on Knife's rocking last year, perhaps most controversially Frank Cotrell Boyce, another YA author. He wondered aloud why the book was even in the "'young adult' ghetto" in stores in the first place, when it should be shelved along with the Handmaid's Tale, Night of the Hunter, Huck Finn, and other books with which it shared its DNA. He also compared it to Matt Damon's "Bourne" movies (which, by the way, were books first), and that's apt in more ways than one.

I just finished the sequel, The Ask and the Answer, and... I didn't throw it across the room. In fact, despite the inevitable cliffhanger (and wow, it's a good one), I was totally satisfied. And filled with dread for what's facing the heroes in the third book (check out a teaser Ness wrote in the meantime).

Maybe I was just prepared this time? In any case, The Ask and the Answer easily matches the quality of the first book. Strangely, the best part of reading it was having it as a mental companion as I've followed what's happening in Iran. The Ask and the Answer has a lot to say about the nature of power, violence, and morality--and when (or whether) we decide to resist those in power, how torture, terrorism, and the control of information can all play a role.

It's a brutal book, I won't lie. The Knife of Never Letting Go was described as the kind of book that's so violent it needs a health warning, and The Ask and the Answer is probably worse in that way. But it's a clever, well-crafted, thought-provoking, and action-packed page turner--i.e., a perfect summer book. If you haven't read The Knife of Never Letting Go, check that out first. But if you have read it and you're wondering whether you should read the second one when it comes out in the U.S. later this summer, plan on it.


Ms. Yingling said...

I've heard nothing but good about these books, but I really, really hated the first one. Maybe it's a guy thing I don't understand. I'll try torturing my son with it.

Marie said...

I have heard so much about these but have not picked them up yet!

Paul Hughes said...

@Ms. Yingling: It might be. (A guy thing.) It also kind of reminded me of when I first read John Grisham's The Firm, in college, which was probably my first bona fide "page turner." But that opened my eyes to the whole formula, all the little tricks that suck you in.

So why did you hate it?

lib_idol said...

I didn't think The Knife of Never Letting Go was as brilliant as many of my peers - whilst the premise was intriguing, original, and engaging, I felt that the "third act" of the book let it down, and the cliffhanger was a total cop-out.


The Ask and the Answer totally redeems it. The character development is so much better, it goes much deeper with questions of politics, loyalties, corruption and humanity, and delivers a much more consistent story, bringing it to an amazing (and far more satisfactory) cliffhanger!

Can't wait until the finale... :)

Teresa Kravtin said...

If any of you are interested, I created a discussion page on FaceBook today, if you'd like to continue this with other like-minded readers.