It’s been a while since I’ve found a fictional series that’s grabbed me so well I’ve sped through the entirety of it in a short time, but Chaos Walking reawakened that desire in me. I’ve got that feeling where I want to find everyone I know who’s already read it so I can demand to know why they didn’t urge me to read it earlier, while also thrusting copies of it on everyone who hasn’t. I read each of the three books (The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men) in a day each over the last week, which is a testament to the strength of both the story and Ness’s writing.
It all starts quite small, in a little place called Prentisstown, which seems to be the last remaining settlement on a world where a war with the natives has led to the deaths of all the women and the infection of the remaining men and animals with Noise, which causes them to psychically broadcast all their thoughts to everyone around them. We see all this through the eyes (and Noise) of Todd Hewitt, the last boy in Prentisstown, still a month away from officially becoming a man. When his adoptive fathers send him away from there, he discovers that the world has a lot more in it than he was told and as he discovers more of the world, it becomes more and more dangerous as the history he knows isn’t as simple, or as dead, as he thought.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about the plot because these are books that thrive on the power of revelation as Todd (and the reader) gets to see a bigger and bigger picture. The revelations aren’t plot twists, more plot straightenings, unlocking a clearer picture of what went before which then drives forward the next part of the story. These aren’t shocks and sudden twists just to create temporary suspense, but part of the way the story unfolds and reveals itself.
Noise is a great concept, and one that’s woven into the story not just a gimmick on top of it. Ness has clearly thought about what it would mean to live in a world where your thoughts and secrets are potentially on show to everyone, and how there’d be a range of different ways to approach it. That’s especially true in the way someone like Todd (who’s never lived in a world without Noise) differs from his elders, who had it thrust upon them. Like the daemons of His Dark Materials, it makes the reader wonder what their Noise would be like and how we’d react to losing that privacy: do you change yourself to accept it, or try and change society to avoid it?
One question that does occur to me after reading it is wondering whether Patrick Ness had read Raccoona Sheldon’s “The Screwfly Solution” before writing it as there’s a definite thematic similarity between the two of them even if the way the story uses those themes is different. A quick Googling suggests Ness hasn’t discussed this in any interview or articles, so I’ll throw it out there for any enterprising writer who does speak to him to ask.
Anyway, I heartily recommend the series, especially worth reading before the inevitable film adaptation messes it all up.