Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Book Review: The Ask and The Answer

Originally published on March 12, 2012.

The Ask and the Answer is the second book in the Chaos Walking trilogy, written by Patrick Ness. The first book, The Knife of Never Letting Go, was good but took me a while to get into. But with this one, I was hooked from the moment I picked it up.... which is why I finished it in just a few days (days during which I was also on a busy out-of-town trip with my daughters), in spite of the fact that those 3 books I mentioned for Academic Super Bowl are still hanging over my head (guilt guilt guilt).

In The Ask and the Answer, the narration switches back and forth between Todd (the hero and narrator of the previous book) and Viola (the dauntless and inspiring settler from Old World). These changes in narration drew me in immediately. I spent pretty much all of the first book wondering what Viola was thinking, and finally, I got to find out.... and I have to say that I found her every bit as brave, strong, and inspiring as I had hoped. Two books into the trilogy, I'm still just not sure what I think of Todd. On one hand, he tries really hard and has the best of intentions. On the other, dang, that guy makes bad choices. So I'm reserving judgment on Todd until I finish the third book, where I sincerely hope he redeems himself for his poor choice at the end of this book.

But I'm getting way ahead of myself. As the book begins, the evil Mayor Prentiss has captured all of New World with his army and has set himself up of the President of the entire world (though really, there are probably only about 1000 people on this planet, all of whom now live closely under his surveillance in New Prentisstown). A mortally wounded Viola has disappeared, and Todd is held prisoner by the Mayor/President. The President tells Todd that he has big plans for a boy with so much potential, but Todd's sole motivation is keeping Viola safe and finding her again.

The President sets up a dictatorial regime. All the women on New World are moved to living quarters separate from the men. All men are recruited to the President's army or put to work in other jobs that he deems useful. All of the Spackle (the aliens native to New World) are rounded up like sheep and forced to do manual labor while being guarded by armed men. And anyone that the President thinks might have useful information is tortured until they bend to his will.

Over time, Todd himself is slowly beaten into submission. He struggles to maintain his own humanity as the President assigns him more and more horrific tasks, with his own life and Viola's always hanging in the balance.

Viola, meanwhile, was taken at the beginning of the book to Mistress Coyle, the most skilled healer on New World.... and, coincidentally, a woman with both power and a plan to overthrow President Prentiss. The President's original hope was to manipulate Viola into becoming his informant, but she refuses to become anyone's pawn. Mistress Coyle and all of her cohorts disappear from New Prentisstown, hiding in the wild and beginning a movement known as the Answer. The Answer raids New Prentisstown for supplies and bombs various strategic locations around the city, creating chaos. Eventually, Viola is taken by the Answer against her will.

Both President Prentiss and Mistress Coyle recognize the sheer will and potential in their young prisoners, and both seek to turn Todd and Viola to their own purposes. Both Todd and Viola recognize the evil and power-hungry natures of both leaders and struggle to determine which side is "right" when both have inflicted so much pain and suffering on the people of New World. Both are used against their wills to achieve horrible things, and both wonder if they have lost each other forever.

In many ways, this book reminded me of Mockingjay (the third book of the Hunger Games trilogy), in its stress on the horrors of war and the corruption of both alternatives for a leader. But whereas I thought that Mockingjay was the weak link in its trilogy, The Ask and the Answer was definitely better than the first book in this trilogy. The book ends in yet another cliffhanger, with the armies of President Prentiss and Mistress Coyle poised to attack each other, two more forces appearing unexpectedly and ready to annhilate both sides, and Todd and Viola separated, contemplating leadership, and struggling to find what's right.

One thing that I really loved about this book was the repetition of the idea that "we are the choices we make." While things might have been easier for Todd many times over if he had just killed the President during one of his many opportunities, he acknowledges that taking a life would change the essence of who he is. Another great character was Corrine, the young healer who refused to take either side in the conflict, opting to take suffering on herself rather than allowing others to come to harm.

My friend Katie over at YA Book Love says that the third book (Monsters of Men) is the best of them all, so I'm anxious to get to the library and check it out. Having finished the second book, I now want to go back and strengthen my recommendation for the first one, since this trilogy clearly functions as a whole and it just keeps getting better!

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