My good friend Splendibird over at Mountains Of Instead (where I sporadically post reviews) has been a-pestering me to read Patrick Ness for some time. Specifically the Chaos Walking trilogy, the first installment of which being The Knife Of Never Letting Go. For some strange reason it lay neglected at the bottom of my reading list for quite some time, its young adult form crushed under the weight of its elders. I finally picked it up last week and discovered to my delight that elder most certainly does not imply better.
The Knife Of Never Letting Go opens in the village of Prentisstown, the only human settlement remaining in the interplanetary colony of New World. Founded by religious pioneers seeking a refuge in which to worship in peace, New World initially seemed idyllic until the colonists discovered they weren’t alone. The ensuing war with the indigenous species known as Spackles resulted in the enemy’s utter defeat but also in the release of a germ with two horrific effects for the colonists. Firstly all of the women were wiped out entirely, leaving behind a world of men and boys. Secondly, each man and animal became infected with the Noise – every single thought is transmitted to everyone in earshot, no more privacy, no more secrets.
Todd Hewitt is the last boy in Prentisstown, orphaned at an early age and raised by Ben and Cillian on their homestead. His coming birthday will result in his induction into the world of men but a trip through the swamps with his dog Manchee leads Todd to discover something unbelievable – a gap in the Noise, a spot of utter quiet. Unnerved by the incident and praying it doesn’t herald the return of the Spackle, Todd hurries about his errands in town and returns to the farm.
Before he knows what is happening, Todd’s world is turned upside town and inside out. On reading his noise, Ben and Cillian burst into action, digging out a hidden pack packed with supplies and his mother’s journal. Despite his protests, Todd’s foster parents frantically send him out of the house, beyond the reach of the men of Prentisstown and in search of another town – wait, another town? – called Haven. In the midst of the chaos the local deputy arrives, demanding that Todd be turned over – his noise leaked all over town and stirred up something dormant lying within all the menfolk. Forcefully sending the lawman packing, Ben and Cillian all but kick Todd on his way before turning to defend the farm from the posse they know will soon be at their doors. Armed only with the titular hunting knife and a journal he can’t even read and with only Manchee for company, Todd has to strike out on his own with an army at his tail and discover that everything he has been told was a lie.
The Knife Of Never Letting Go wastes no time in getting to the action and doesn’t let up from that point onwards. From start to finish it’s a never-ending series of trials for young Todd as he tries to outrun the demented preacher Aaron, avoid the Prentisstown army and hide his Noise from any outsiders he meets, none of whom hold any love for Prentisstown or its inhabitants. The pacing is perfect, with just enough time between incidents for you to catch your breath and learn more of the history of New World.
What’s not quite perfect is the writing style, with its deliberate phonetic spellings of certain longer words. It’s a fine concept to be fair, but the arbitrary and inconsistent of the words selected is enough to drive any English teacher crazy. And to be honest it took me a long time to accept the way Noise was portrayed, initially finding it clunky and cumbersome, dragging the rest of the action down. That said, by the book’s climax it feels like Ness has finally grasped how to portray Noise, and his descriptions of the climactic battle is an eruption of Noise and sharp, staccato sentences which truly bring Todd’s adrenaline-fuelled mixture of panic and resolve to life. And it has to be said that Manchee’s confused little dog-thoughts – “Todd? Poo, Todd! Squirrels, squirrels!” – are utterly adorable.
For a young adult work, The Knife Of Letting Go is remarkably mature and meaty. The kid gloves are off and Patrick Ness pulls no punches, at one point out-Martining George R.R. himself (you know what I’m talking about Ness, you heartless bastard.) The book ends on a perfectly-timed cliffhanger which has guaranteed to keep me on New World for the duration of the next two Chaos Walking volumes.