by Patrick Ness
478 pages, Walker Books
Review by SF Winser
Wow. Simply wow.
Let's just get straight to it: This book blew me away. I want to thrust it upon friends, acquaintances, random people in the street. Complex, interesting characters. Terrifying action. Meaning as deep as the soul itself. Prose that sings. Awesome.
Continuing Booksquawk's run of YA books that have wonderful things to offer, 'The Knife of Never Letting Go' is probably the first book where I think that even if the author died and never completed the trilogy, this book would stand on its own.
And the best... worst.. umm.. completely inaccurate way of describing this book is 'Huckleberry Finn in Space'. Which tells you the setting, but gives no hints of the excellence. Even then that probably gives you ideas about spaceships and lasers when, for most of the book, the most advanced technology used is a pair of binoculars and a simple, but high-quality, knife.
There are so many lies and twists in this book about honesty and bald-thoughts that it's almost impossible to sum up the plot – or even talk about much – without ruining the experience. I can't talk about some of the more interesting aspects of the book because the reveals – and the way they are revealed – are important to the reader's experience. The main reason I want others to read this book is so I have someone to talk to about it.
I'll do what I can...
Todd Hewitt is the last boy. The youngest male human alive. The people of Prentisstown arrived as settlers on a new world many years ago. They started as peaceful settlers and ended fighting a war with the native/aliens the 'Spacks'.
The Spacks released two germ-warfare agents in the course of the short, bloody war. The first made every animal on the planet able to talk. (This doesn't mean that they had much to say. Croc-analogues: 'Wait...wait...wait... BITE!'. Squirrels tease, dogs are loyal but stupid and obsessed with bodily functions. And sheep have a one word vocabulary of 'Sheep').
The second germ-agent did two things. It made every male human project his thoughts in an uncontrollable 'Noise' of psychic power. Every male has a cloud of images and concepts around his head. And he physically manifests the sounds of every word he thinks. Luckily, this mess makes the stuff hard to read. It's, quite literally, noise. One can pick up strong thoughts, emotions and random bits but it's like watching three TV stations at once. It makes lying hard. It drives many insane.
The second part of this second germ-attack killed every human woman on the planet. This drove the remaining men to kill every last Spack.
So Todd Hewitt isn't just the youngest boy in Prentisstown. He's the last child there'll ever be. He's raised by men in a town of men, never knowing what a baby is. Never knowing what children are. Not even remembering his own mother.
Days before his birthday. Days before he's due to officially become a man, Todd finds a patch of silence in the noisy, noisy world...
And now he needs to die. He needs to run. Because... Well... I can't really tell you why.
The book (mostly) describes Todd's run downriver to... anywhere that might be safe. But it covers so much more. It deals with lies and honesty. With friendship and love and trust. Above all, it examines what it is to be a man. To be moral. To fail and try again. This is a book about, more than anything, keeping a moral compass in a complex and demanding world. In this, above all else, 'Knife' is about the here and now. The world Todd grows up in is weird and complex. So is our world. Todd's world has many instances of hard moral choices, of temptations to evil where everyone else is telling you you're right, when you know you're wrong. And hard choices where the right path can't be chosen easily, and you don't know, even afterward, if it you've made the correct choice.
The depth of this aspect of the book is where Ness excels. This is a book about morality in the same way 'A Clockwork Orange' and 'Lord of the Flies' are about morality. With as much to say about the difference between a man and a boy and moral choices.
We get three levels with Todd. We get his narration – a Huck-Finn-esque vocabulary, pronunciation and spelling style – his actions, and the illustration of his Noise. We always know what Todd is thinking and feeling one way or another. (He always explayns what direkshun his thinking is going, to slip into Todd-speak for a moment). And we need all of this to follow him through some complex choices and ideas. And we watch him grow and increase in self-awareness and awareness of others.
The writing from the first page is juvenile and wonderful. And I mean juvenile in the fact that it's about a teen protagonist and uses potty humour at times. Every so often, the book sparks with humour from the oddest directions but it's not juvenile 'cheap', it's juvenile 'true'.
The only real issue I have with the book is the fact that much of what happens to Todd relies on him being nearly illiterate while carrying an important message he can't quite read. He has good reasons not to ask others to read it for him, and they have good reasons not to. But the time it takes for the message to actually get read seems too stretched out.
And that's it. That's all I got to complain about. There's one more point revolving around a death that doesn't quite work that I can't go into without major spoilers and probably an essay.
The prose is sometimes a bit too obviously down-homey but rarely strikes an actual bad tone. The central conceit around Todd's chase is potentially unconvincing, until one factors in the simple insanity and Machiavellian determination of his pursuers. These are people obsessed with morality and other people's thoughts and who have a mad plan they are determined to see through. A plan they have obsessed over for more than a decade. Their objectives when it comes to Todd don't need to make rational sense as long as they make sense to the people involved.
See? Every time I try to bring a cynical, reviewing eye upon this book I end up being wholly unconvincing. I have milquetoast criticisms. I should just come out and say it: This is a damn fine book.