Whatever else they are, these books are gripping. I’ve read one a day for the past three days and been mildly perturbed by the people I love for trying to speak to me during this time.
The three books unfold on another planet, which has been colonized by humans due to overcrowding and lack of sufficient resources on Earth. The first book, The Knife of Never Letting Go, opens a few weeks before young Todd’s thirteenth birthday, when he will become a man in the eyes of his village, Prentisstown– which is made up entirely of men. That is, there are no children younger than Todd, nor are there any women. The women have been killed, it seems, by a germ that infected all the humans upon their arrival. Though the men survived, the germ affects them by making all of their thoughts audible, all of the time. Apparently, though, it is still possible to hide at least some thoughts in “The Noise,” because Todd’s adoptive parents, Ben and Cillian, pack him up shortly before his birthday and tell him he must run away for his own safety, because most of what he knows about Prentisstown is a lie.
Todd’s flight is complicated by the fact that, shortly before his parents send him away, he discovers a girl, Viola, hiding near the village. Viola was on a ship of new settlers that crashed and killed everyone else on board, including her parents. Now, pursued by the Mayor of Prentisstown and a small army of men, and separately by a crazed priest, Aaron, Todd and Viola run for their lives, discovering the secrets of their planet, but also learning about one another.
The relationship between Todd and Viola drives most of the major plot turns of the trilogy, so it’s fortunate that Ness does an excellent job of building it up. It is a refreshing pleasure to see a relationship between two characters grow slowly, organically, and for it to be based on trust, loyalty, and mutual respect for each other’s abilities. Todd and Viola become attracted to each other physically only after they’ve become best friends.
The Chaos Walking Trilogy also takes a fresh approach to its gender roles. Though there aren’t many aside from Viola, the female characters are multi-faceted and complex, particularly Mistress Coyle, the ruthless head of a terrorist organization who is also a skilled healer and a mentor of sorts to Viola in the second book of the series, The Ask and the Answer. Throughout the books, Ness explores the ways in which a society’s treatment of women is a marker of its overall health and functionality.
Ness also explores the concept of “manhood,” especially as Todd has been taught to imagine it. One of Todd’s “flaws” is that he cannot kill, even to save himself. He can never bring himself to it. Ness interrogates the idea that violence is the only way to show strength or masculinity. He also takes a naturalistic approach to homosexuality and same-sex parenting. They’re not highlighted, but they are depicted as normal and qualitatively neutral.
Plot-wise, the best aspect of the trilogy is the way Ness grows his world in each book. Too many trilogies would be better told in two books or even one, and often the second book of a trilogy feels like a retread of the first. But that’s not the case here, where Ness introduces new people and information that broaden the scope and raise the stakes in each installment. We learn more about The Noise, more about the planet, more about its native inhabitants, and more about what happened in Prentisstown before Todd was born. We learn about other groups of people on the planet and see different forms of government.
The enlarged cast does become a bit unwieldy in book three, Monsters of Men, when Ness gives POV chapters to Todd, Viola, and a third character. It might have worked better if each character had fewer, longer chapters, to maintain the perspective while mitigating the disorienting, choppy switches that occur too frequently. Though the ending itself is solid and worthy of the series, the third book as a whole is the series’ weakest link, with too many battle scenes (even in a book about war!) and one or two too many plot threads that could have been wrapped up more economically without sacrificing impact.
Still, the worst that can be said of the last book is that it had me turning pages in certain parts more out of impatience than suspense. The Chaos Walking Trilogy is engrossing, thought-provoking YA that will make your weekend sometime soon, if you decide to pick it up.