By Max Dunbar.
‘The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.’ A lot of people have commented on this ingenious opening line of The Knife of Never Letting Go, the beginning of a three-book adventure that ends next month when Monsters and Men is published. I finished the novel today with tears in my eyes. I’m not even embarrassed. The book is that good.
Chaos Walking begins with Todd Hewitt walking a dog that he doesn’t want. He lives in a small town on a planet recently colonised by space-travelling humans. Go back and read from the beginning, if you haven’t done so. There’s something in the planet’s atmosphere that makes thoughts visible. Walking back into town, Todd is engulfed by the maelstrom of Noise: dreams, memories, fantasies, plans, the whisper and babble of id and subconscious all around him in a great formless mess. The typography of it splatters across the page.
The Noise concept brings an added element of drama to a story that already hums with tension. Soon Todd’s on the run from an army led by the Mayor of his home town. Somehow he has to outpace an enemy that can not only track him but also hear his thoughts. He’s headed for a town called Haven where there’s rumoured to be a cure for Noise. Book one ends with the exhausted and battle-hardened narrator staggering into town, a dying girl in his arms, only to find that Mayor Prentiss has got there first and enslaved the city. He rations the Noise cure, believing that privacy is a privilege to be earned. In Monsters of Men, the Noise goes from a fun and inventive plot device to a way of exploring in detail how people communicate and process information.
It’s said that a writer has to have a splinter of ice in his heart, and children’s writers are crueller than most. The Knife of Never Letting Go is grim to the point of reckless. Good people go to the wall, every break comes at a price, and the novel ends with evil triumphant. Ness knows how to break your heart. In New Prentisstown Todd is put to work alongside his nemesis Davy Prentiss, the Mayor’s son and a spoilt, loudmouthed bully. As Todd’s reputation rises in the view of the Mayor, we come to realise that Davy’s arrogance is just a defence, that all he wants is his father’s love and validation. It doesn’t happen. Instead the Mayor kills him with a casual blast of his shotgun. Having learned to turn off his Noise, Mayor Prentiss is a truly unknowable villain whose malevolence is a mystery until the very final chapters.
By the opening of Monsters and Men, Haven is at war with the Spackle, an indigenous species that has no spoken language and has been exploited by the human conquerors. The Noise is a disturbing cacophony even in small, quiet communities: on a battlefield it is like opening a door into hell. Book three is full of explosions, blood and death. There is an additional separatist group of renegade doctors that fights the Mayor’s dictatorship. But its leaders are happy to sacrifice innocents for the sake of the cause. Ness is a tough-minded author who doesn’t give his readers comforting choices.
The novels would seem sledgehammer-bleak if not for the narrative drive and uncompromising humanity that underpins every word in every line. Chaos Walking is too good for the Young Adult strapline. Like Philip Pullman, Robert Cormier and Paul Zindel, Ness has written the best kind of children’s book – the kind that teaches you how to grow up.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry, and reviews editor of 3:AM.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 25th, 2010.