The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

The Knife of Never Letting Go
Patrick Ness
Candlewick Press, 2008
U.S. hardcover, first edition
ISBN 978-0-7636-3931-0
496 pages; $18.99

Young adult science fiction and fantasy is not only extraordinarily popular these days (as in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga); much of it is also extraordinarily good (unlike the Twilight Saga). Ursula K. LeGuin has just won the Nebula Award for the last of her Annals of the Western Shore trilogy, Powers. Ysabeau S. Wilce’s Flora's Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room) won the Andre Norton Award, and if it’s anywhere near as good as Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog, it certainly deserved the award (personally, I think Wilce should get a special award for Really Great Titles). And now the Tiptree Award, which is “presented annually to a work or works that explore and expand gender roles in science fiction and fantasy,” has been awarded to The Knife of Never Letting Go: Chaos Walking: Book One.

Todd lives on New World, in Prentisstown. He is the youngest person in his town, the population of which is entirely male. He has been told that the same virus that created the Noise killed all the women, and that the virus was a weapon unleashed by a species native to the planet that declared war on the settlers when they arrived. Todd will soon be 13 years old, at which time he will officially become a man.

The Noise is a malady suffered by all men and animals on the planet: everything can hear what everything else is thinking. It is unremitting, loud, ugly, distracting. A boy can’t keep any secrets, not even when he wants to use bad language to express his frustrations when he’s off by himself, because there really isn’t anywhere he can go to be by himself; the Noise is everywhere. Even his dog can talk to him, not that the dog has anything interesting to say. It’s no wonder that it drives some men mad.

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that what Todd has been told, about the town, about the war, about the Noise, and about what happened to the women – about just about everything in fact – is a lie. The men of Prentisstown have been able to somehow hide in their Noise, in their grief, what they plan to tell Todd on his 13th birthday, which is only a month away. When that day comes, and Todd is inaugurated into the town’s adult community in its own special way, Todd will learn the truth, and the town will march into its future.

But something happens that changes everything and separates Todd from the town, and from everything he hates (which is most of it) and loves (which is heart-wrenchingly precious to him). Not that the town will give him up so easily; nor will it give up what he has found in the swamp. Just why he is so important to Mayor Prentiss and his henchmen isn’t clear, but it is plain that Todd isn’t so much running to save his physical life – no one seems to want him dead – as to save his soul.

I can tell you little about this book without giving away more than I want to, so I’ll stop discussing the plot here. I can tell you, though, that Knife is a very exciting tale, full of cliffhangers, escapes, surprises, terrible moments and happy discoveries. It is told in the first person in the voice of an uneducated farm boy who has no idea about the situation in which he has suddenly been thrust, and little to rely on except his inherent good character, an apparently strong conscience and the help of an unexpected but equally interesting ally.

I hope you will excuse the cliché, but this truly was a book I could barely put down. When I reached the end, my inclination was to hop on a plane for London and plant myself in Patrick Ness’s study to read the sequel as he wrote it – but apparently the book is already written and in press. So I saved myself the airfare and instead immediately ordered The Ask and the Answer: Chaos Walking: Book Two. I bet you'll want to do the same thing.