* Prices may differ from that shown
LENGTH: 624 pages
BACKGROUND: This is the third and final installment of The Chaos Walking Trilogy. In order, the books are: The Knife of Never Letting Go; The Ask and the Answer; Monsters of Men.
IS IT A READ-ALONE BOOK? Most definitely not. If you're coming to this final part of Chaos Walking cold, then it probably won't make sense to you. As such, I'm writing this review on the basis that you'll already be up to speed with the first two books. If you haven't read them and intend to, then stop reading now - as any discussion of this final book is, necessarily, a spoiler in respect of what's gone before. Naturally, I won't give away any spoilers in respect of this particular installment.
SYNOPSIS: The Ask and the Answer concluded with the New World being on the brink of war. Faced with an approaching Spackle army, Todd realises, with some dread, that the Mayor whom he's finally bested must now be released if he and Viola are to stand any chance of creating the world they want before the scout ship (and, finally, the rest of the convoy) arrive. Todd and Viola are forced to separate once more - with Viola attempting to reach the scout ship ahead of Mistress Coyle - and they soon come to realise that it is indeed true that war makes monsters of men. But it's not just men they have to worry about - there are plenty of issues with Mistress Coyle's band of women (terrorism and a desire for one-upmanship included), along with a powerful new enemy (the Spackle). And, among this, we are introduced to one new voice (which now shares a first-person narrative, along with Todd and Viola's) - that of 1017 - or The Return as he is now known.
MY VIEW: I loved the first two books in this series and, personally, engaged most with the second book (The Ask and the Answer). I must admit to struggling initially with the final novel. Personally, I began to feel that there was a repetitive element that jarred - Todd's inclination to make an admission he felt uncomfortable with, then say 'Don't, just don't' or 'Stop it' to the reader as though they might be sitting in judgement, laughing at him. I also felt the very narrow voice of the horses began to jar after a while - the repetitive 'Boy Colt' thing. Also, towards the start of the book, there were a few continuity errors regarding Viola and her horse - one minute she was on him, the next she wasn't; it almost felt as though Ness had finished one book and rushed onto the other without drawing breath.
Whilst I felt the first book involved a lot of running away and pursuit, it held my interest because it was the first in the series and the concept of 'noise' was incredibly original - as was the newfound friendship between Todd and Viola. Book two was, for me, the most engaging because Todd and Viola spent most of the time apart, having very different experiences. This time, in Monsters of Men, the narrative began to seem overwhelmingly one-tracked - with a war that was on, then off, then on etc. I wondered, at times, whether Ness had film rights in his head as he wrote this particular instalment. I began to feel that there was only so much running, gun-firing, flaming-spear-throwing I could take. I'm giving nothing away when I say that much of the book is taken over by battle scenes and counsels of war - I had hoped that, maybe, this book would jump forward further in time as, for me, it would have made a more interesting and rounded tale. Finally, I also found the narrative by 1017 somewhat slow. We are forced to grapple with odd terms for the Spackle (who call themselves The Land) and men (who are the Clearing) - then there's The Sky (Spackle leader) and Pathways. It's not the introduction of new terminology which slows reading up, more the fact that these are terms that mean entirely different things in English, so you find yourself tripping up over them at the start. However, I can see the analogy Ness was trying to make by using this language and, after a while, it becomes more familiar.
Despite my gripes with this book, Ness also did some fantastic things with it. He didn't rest on his laurels re the 'noise' - he moved this forward, creating even more depth and meaning to it. In Viola and Todd he has created two complex, exemplary, and all-too-human characters - fine examples for any young adult reading the book. There are some beautiful concepts and ideas in this book - for example, when The Sky (the Spackle leader) comments, "And do you not think that conflict is what makes the Sky? To seek a third choice when the two offered seem impossible?" Above and beyond anything, this is a story of courage, love, honour, loyalty, acceptance, redemption and hope.
Whilst the focus of this book may not have entirely been what I'd hoped for, it nevertheless touched me. When I finally closed the book, I felt as though I were saying goodbye to friends. Even a couple of days later, Todd and Viola remain in my thoughts. It is perhaps the greatest accomplishment an author can hope for - to bring into existence characters that, for a reader, become tangible and real. To have created people with such depth that, even though they're fictional, a reader is capable of missing them.
CONCLUSION: If you've read the first two books, you simply must finish the trilogy and find out what happens! As ever, when an author writes a series, readers will find their own favourite. This wasn't the best book for me but it nevertheless provided the closure that any fan of Chaos Walking will want.
Having read the two previous books in this series when they were (in sequential years) nominated for the Carnegie Medal, I was not surprised to find the third one had been nominated too. My partner in the book award shadowing group I run groaned and refused to read it. I think she lost patience with Ness and this series about a third of the way through book one. She also questioned how likely the third instalment was to have a genuine chance of winning if the author had not managed to scoop the prize with either of the previous two books. She even argued that, after two 'failures', perhaps the third book shouldn't be eligible for consideration for this particular prize, as it was unfairly occupying a space that could be given to a more likely winner. It was an interesting argument (although it did rather ignore the multiple children's book awards the previous two books *have* won) but, regardless of competition issues, someone had to read the book so we could discuss it with our students. Enter me. (I am not quite sure how I always get stuck with the weighty / boring / unlikely entries but it happens every year!)
Fortunately, however, I felt that the second book in the series had been a big improvement on the first, and I had finished it thinking that I wouldn't mind reading the third. My biggest concern was that I might finish it and discover that the author intended to write a fourth and a fifth...I am not a big fan of drawn out series and really wanted the story to end here after the non-endings of the first two books. (Both were huge cliff-hangers.) My most immediate concern, however, was the sheer size of it. Like the previous two books, this is a hefty story, weighing in at 603 pages. It might be unfair and prejudiced, but I just didn't really fancy wading into it, so the book sat on my shelf for a few weeks while I gathered my motivation. Eventually, I headed into battle - literally.
-- The premise and my response --
As the book opens, three armies are preparing to battle for supremacy on a world presumably set in the future. Two of these armies consist of settlers who have been travelling through space for many years before colonising this planet a generation ago and appear to be the remnants of the human race. The settlers, after various incidents depicted in the previous two books, are deeply split into two factions - the men, led by Mayor / President Prentiss (and our hero, Todd Hewitt), and the woman, led by Mistress Coyle (and our heroine, Viola). Intent on destroying each other, they have also managed to upset the native species, known by the settlers as 'the spackle', by essentially committing an act of genocide.
While the Mayor and Mistress Coyle seem set on destruction and battle for supreme control of the settlers, Todd and Viola, children who have had to grow up fast in the previous books, are determined to gain peace between all the groups. But how? Their efforts to achieve this are persistently subverted by the adults - and sometimes by their own impulses. Can the Mayor really beat the Spackle as he promises? Even if he can achieve this feat, can he be trusted? Mistress Coyle says not, but of course, she's not particularly trustworthy either: she once nearly killed Viola, in the name of the cause. As battle commences, the settlers realise something chilling: the spackle have learned from the invaders and have some powerful weapons at their disposal. How can they win now? Then the women start dying. It's clearly connected to the metal bands permanently clamped on their wrists by the men, but how? And can they be saved? As the chaos develops, new settler ships make their way steadily towards the war zone and a new voice enters the story...
It may sound as if I have revealed most of the plot, but this is really the tip of the iceberg. Unsurprisingly, quite a lot happens in 603 pages. Essentially, then, the story is concerned with war and its politics. To make such a heavy topic relevant to a teen audience, the central (teen) characters take it in turns to narrate the story and it will probably come as no surprise to realise that there's a love story developing too. The book is designed to appeal to girls and boys due to the dual narrative and thematic focuses (war and love) and I think it succeeds in this.
I was a bit worried before I started reading because war is not a subject I would usually be interested in reading fiction about. (I loathed Catch 22.) I had also been warned that the whole story was essentially one long battle sequence. However, the focus of the plotting is not so much on the physical horrors of war or the attacks and counter attacks (although these are certainly present); instead the political manoeuvring was paramount and I did find that very interesting. In particular, I found the way violence was deemed necessary by the human leaders to create peace interesting. I felt that the storyline was essentially realistic, despite some definitely fantastical elements, and as such I was able to get quite involved in the storyline.
-- A unique narrative style --
There are a few aspects of the narration that are worth mentioning. Firstly, there are three different first person narrators in the story. This is not a feature I always appreciate as it can make it harder to bond with characters and can even sometimes make the story difficult to follow if it is not clear who is who. Here, it is easy to tell who is speaking because the sections are headed up with the characters' names and very different font styles are used to represent the speakers. Also, although Ness' writing style does not really change, the language the characters use is sufficiently different to allow you to recognise them as a distinct character. I was pleased that it was easy to know who was talking and really liked this approach for several reasons.
As in the previous book, Viola and Todd are essentially on opposing sides of the war between the settlers, even though they both only want peace. Also, as in the previous book, their trust is strained by the choices they suspect and sometimes witness each other making. I felt that this approach created a lot of strain between the characters and helped to make the story much more interesting as it often felt extremely tense. It also helps to see how war does make monsters of men as you can understand how each gets caught into making what may seem to be unacceptable choices.
A third of the way through a third voice enters the text and I really enjoyed this aspect of the story. Finally the reader is given the Spackle's perspective, but not just any Spackle - no. 1017, permanently branded by Todd in the previous book. He hates Todd and burns with a desire to harm him, but through him we learn more about the Spackle culture and realise something extremely important about what the settlers call 'Noise'. Noise is a curse for the men who have settled on the new world; they can hear each other's every thought, and they hate it. I found the Spackle's very different perspective interesting and it genuinely led me to rethink the attitude of the humans towards noise. This all links to a central debate that gets stronger towards the end of the novel and hints towards Ness' key themes, since, of course, the book is not really *just* about a battle. It seems to be more about how you, as an individual and a culture, approach life and the world.
Another point to note is the way the story is structured. Rather than using chapters, the book is divided into sections which are typically quite long - up to 79 pages. This can mean that it is difficult to find a natural resting place when reading as the action is always ongoing; there is always something happening. However, the sections are divided by the narrators and the changeovers between these perspectives can be frequent as every page. Of course, this only usually happens when they are witnessing something important from different perspectives, so more commonly the changeovers are every few pages. This at least gives the reader a point to pause.
Finally, the paragraphs are usually short and often very short - one or two lines long. There is also a lot of dialogue which means some fairly short paragraphs. This means that the book takes a little less time to read than you might anticipate from the size of it. I liked this style as it fit well with the pace of the action and made me feel like I was making good progress through the book.
-- Can it be read as a standalone book? --
Well, not really. You could do, as anything from a previous book which is crucial to the action of this book is referenced at an appropriate point to help you understand. However, my reading group seem to be rather divided in their response to the book, in that those who've read the previous ones really loved it and those who hadn't were rather more restrained in their feelings. They felt there was a lot they might not know that could be useful to know and didn't seem to enjoy it as much.
I feel strongly that a newcomer to the series would find this a little difficult to follow - especially when third voice begins speaking as they wouldn't know why 1017 and Todd feel the way they do about each other and this isn't fully explained. Even little details might jar and make the experience of reading the book feel a little uncomfortable. For instance, Todd and Viola call Prentiss 'the Mayor' but everyone else calls him 'the President'. The reasons behind this were made clear in the previous book but the discrepancy is not addressed here. Another point that isn't explained is why Viola's ankles are broken when the book opens. In fact, although I had read the previous book, I couldn't remember why this was and it irritated me a little. This is certainly not a vital plot point, but I think it is symptomatic of the difficulties a reader who was new to this book might have.
-- So is it worth reading all three books? --
If you're a teenage boy or girl who enjoys reading and isn't overwhelmed by the thought of approximately 1,800 pages then yes, I would say it is worth reading the books. The narrative arc develops well. The characters stay true to themselves throughout the series and, although there are fantastical elements, this isn't a fantasy story or even, really, an other worlds story. It is more an exploration of conflict and the Western approach to the planet and to those whom they perceive as 'outsiders'.
Adult readers may enjoy this. It is full of action and the themes have sufficient depth. The language and style might grate after a while though and I felt the romance was a little too saccharine. Personally, I didn't mind reading the series and I thought some of the ideas were very interesting, but I wouldn't say I enjoyed the actual process of reading it particularly. That is partly because I just felt like I had to get through it quickly so I could discuss it with the students, but I think it is also because, fundamentally, this is a book for teens.
-- Conclusions --
This is a book with challenging themes and it is rather dark in places but there is a sense of hope running throughout that prevents it from becoming depressing. Despite the length, there is sufficient plot to keep the storyline engaging for the target audience (teen girls and boys. However, I wouldn't really recommend that this book be read in isolation. I'd read all three or simply not bother. That said, they are good enough to warrant reading all three, if you are a teenager and can find the time.