If ever there was a book that left me completely gutted, it was the second installment of Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy, The Ask and The Answer. I read this book in one sitting because I couldn’t bear to put it down. I felt every emotion I could imagine – fear, joy, anger, love, loss…and I felt it in a way that made my stomachache and my heart pound and my eyes water. I always hate building up a book because then I’m afraid it can never live up to the expectations I establish, but I had the most visceral reaction to The Ask and The Answer that I’ve ever had to any book in my life. And I know it certainly met my (very high) expectations for it.
It’s basically impossible to talk about a sequel without some vague spoilers for the book before, and I just want to warn everyone that they’ll be sprinkled through this review. So…beware. The Ask and the Answer picks up right where The Knife of Never Letting Go lets off. Viola and Todd have managed to escape Prentisstown and make it to Haven, but when they get there they find that the things they were running from run faster. The Mayor has beaten them there and has already separated the men from the women – has already started trying to shape the world according to his vision for it. But this time, he’s facing an adversary. This time, the fight has gone guerilla and Todd and Viola are caught up in it, each on the other side, and each only wanting to keep the other safe.
The thing that tore me into shreds in this book was watching what happens to Todd. In my last review I said that the Chaos Walking books were about all the grays areas that are so often ignored. This book was mired in that. Watching Todd, sensitive, caring Todd endure the horrors of a war he disagreed with broke my heart into a million tiny pieces. Because I know what Todd is doing is wrong. Viola knows that what Todd is doing is wrong. And, worst of all, Todd sure as heck knows that what he’s doing is wrong. But he keeps doing it anyway. Because you can’t always put the rest of the world first. Because that’s a harder decision than any of us can ever imagine. Todd is willing to destroy himself for Viola, and…seriously, I can’t think about it without wanting to tear up. This book breaks Todd down, but he is never really broken. He does things he abhors, but he still stays himself. He can never quite turn into the cold, calculating leader President Prentiss expects him to be. He is still the same Todd from the first book, and his goodness and strength is catching. The scenes in the Spackle camp left me physically hurting for Todd and ready to tear The Ask limb from limb.
While Todd was being torn down, Viola was being built up. Where Todd had to go along with the terrifyingly awful plans of The President, Viola had been pulled out of town with the “good side.” She didn’t have to worry about doing things for Todd, she could fight what she saw as the horrors that The Answer were committing, and fight she did. She fights so hard against what she sees, and in this book Viola really comes into herself. She can see the long-term needs for the planet better than Todd can, and she takes that into account. But in the back of her mind, there’s always Todd. I loved that balance in Viola. And I loved that she had this weakness for him that wasn’t a weakness at all.
What set this book above Knife for me were the political machinations. Where Knife was an army marching toward its goal, The Ask and The Answer tells us what happens when that army gets there. Like life, the consequences are never simple, and they were far from that here. Yes, the President is a totalitarian, evil jerk. And yes, he is terrible for the planet and its people. But the Mistresses of The Answer aren’t much better. Their guerilla, borderline terrorist style attacks on what was formerly Haven and what is now New Prentisstown take as little stock of life as the President’s actions had. While they’re doing it for the good of the town and the people, no one seems to be able to articulate what they are going to do different and better. It was complicated, as it needed to be.
The ending of this book, much like its predecessor, was a cliffhanger. But in this case, I wish I’d seen it coming. I should have seen it coming. It was so brilliant, so genius, and yet so depressing at the same time…I almost died waiting for Monsters of Men to come out.
I’m not afraid to say that, like The Empire Strikes Back, this middle installment of the Chaos Walking trilogy is by far my favorite of the three. And possibly one of my favorite books ever. I only wish I could write a review that could really do it justice. Stay tuned tomorrow, when I’ll talk about the final installment, Monsters of Men and why this is my favorite YA series besides Harry Potter.