Amid this crowded and too often disappointing field, Patrick Ness has written a gem of a series - three books that make up the Chaos Walking trilogy. The third and concluding volume, Monsters of Men, was published Tuesday.
This is not to say Chaos Walking doesn’t share anything with the immensely popular and significantly more mediocre books of its kind also targeting teens. Some of the immediately noticeable aspects of Ness’ story fit right in with the mega trends of today’s young adult fiction market: first person, present tense, series of at least three, some sort of fantasy or science fiction element. Despite these similarities, Ness has managed to create something unique, and he’s made the more traditional elements fresh again.
If you haven't heard much about the books yet, I encourage you to check out my review of the first book here, where I provide a description of the premise. I won't go into much plot detail in this post since I wrote about it previously; instead I'll concentrate on other aspects of the books - writing style, themes, and audience.
The first book, The Knife of Never Letting Go, is told entirely with Todd’s voice and ends with a cliffhanger (of course). The second book, The Ask and the Answer, picks up right where the first left off, but adds Viola’s voice to the mix. In this volume, Todd and Viola are separated, and Todd is taken under the wing of the manipulative mayor while Viola is pulled into a rebel group called the Answer whose goal is to destroy the mayor at any cost.
Meanwhile, another war with the Spackle looms, and Ness leaves his readers on another precipice as the volume ends.
Which brings us to the third book, Monsters of Men. In the concluding volume, Ness has added a third voice, that of a Spackle called the Return. Here is where Ness really shines. He’s succeeded in bringing us into the Spackle’s mind, a mind that feels both familiar but also very, very alien. The Return’s sections are poetic and pained and at times hard to decipher, and when we finally do sink far enough into the character's voice to understand the Return's story, it is all the more satisfying. Other authors have tried something similar with varying levels of success. Philip Pullman's Mulefa in the Amber Spyglass are brought to mind, but even Pullman couldn't portray his aliens as effectively as Ness. While the Return is ultimately a figure we relate to and feel sympathy for, we are also always conscious of his non-humanness. It's a terrific feat that Ness is able to pull off.
There are some heavy themes at work here. The first major one is gender, in particular what it means to be a man (in a world devoid of women or not). It’s not a stretch to call the series feminist books for boys, but Ness doesn’t hit us over the head with it.
The other major theme is war, and this comes into play most heavily in the third installment. Monsters of Men (taken from a character’s statement that “war makes monsters of men”) brings us full-on war with the Spackle from page one. The mayor and the Answer must decide whether they should keep fighting each other or join forces to beat back the Spackle, and the process is not quick or pretty. Even when it’s over, there are aftershocks.
These themes make for a very dark story, but Ness provides some balance with a few humorous touches. Todd’s voice is a big part of what makes the first book such an enjoyable read. His narration resembles the Noise that surrounds him, so he tells his story in fragments and run-ons and quick parenthetical asides (“Shut up!” he frequently tells the reader after he knows he’s said something not very nice.). The style is unique and more than a gimmick - it’s necessary to the story Ness needs to tell.
Ness also brings us Todd’s dog Manchee, the best dog in literature ever. The first line in The Knife of Never Letting Go is “The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.” To prove his point, Manchee’s first words are “Need a poo, Todd.” When you think about it, that is really one of the main things our dogs would say to us, isn’t it?
Comparisons with Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy (which I also love, just not with quite the same fervor) are unavoidable. You can read my thoughts on Mockingjay at our round-robin review here. There's no doubt that Collins has written a heck of a story, a dystopia in first person present-tense (sound familiar?) about a teenager who fights against the odds in a war that tears her world apart. But when both books are placed side by side, Mockingjay never really stands a chance. Ness’ story is much more layered with more complex characters and subtler, less heavy-handed messages. Mockingjay is great, but Monsters of Men is a masterpiece.
This complexity of character and theme is also what propels Monsters of Men beyond just the teen market. It’s one of those crossovers that’s fast-paced enough to appeal to even reluctant teen readers, but also layered enough to appeal to adults whose teen years may be far behind them. In this regard, it’s similar to Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, another outstanding book marketed to teens but read and appreciated by all ages. I hope that adult readers who don't normally read YA won't let the “young adult” tag mislead them - the book’s protagonists are teens, but its exciting plot and skillful writing are universally appealing.
Not everything about Chaos Walking shines. The abundance of short fragmentary sentences can sometimes wear, and bad guys have a tendency to come back from the dead so many times that it would break even the most willing suspension of disbelief. But these are minor quibbles about a story that is one of the best I’ve read this decade.
A common saying among readers and writers alike is “There are no new stories.” Mind-reading has been done before, as has colonization of faraway planets and war and aliens. But it’s never been done in quite this way, and it’s never been told quite so well.