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The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness

This book left me exhausted.

It’s pretty much one long chase for most of its 479 pages, but it’s also more than that. It’s original, clever, thought-provoking and disturbing, sitting somewhere on the YA shelf between science fiction and fantasy.

The story is set in the future, on a planet called New World, which has been settled by people wanting to start a fresh life (not dissimilar to the original settlers of another New World a few centuries back).

These church settlers fought a war against the indigenous inhabitants (known as the Spackle), and became infected by a germ that allowed men to hear each other’s thoughts, and those of all living creatures around them – except women.

But in Prentisstown, all the women have now died, and all the males have turned 13 – except Todd. He’s the last boy in the settler town and is counting down the days before he becomes a man.

Todd is used to hearing the thoughts of the men of Prentisstown – dark thoughts filled with anger, desperation and longing – and those of his lively dog Manchee (“Poo Todd!”)

But when he stumbles across a patch of silence down by the river, he knows something isn’t right. He doesn’t know what it means, but just hearing the silence is enough to put his life at risk, and before he understand why, Todd’s on the run with the ever-loyal Manchee.

He discovers the source of the silence and that answer – and the revelation Prentisstown is not the only settlement on New World – turn his life inside out.

For most of The Knife of Never Letting Go, Todd is on the run from the crazed men of Prentisstown, and the threat they pose only escalates as the chase continues.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book as fast-paced as this. one Ness builds the tension quickly and sustains it to the point it’s almost unbearable – in fact, by the showdown at the end, it’s excruciating.

It’s hard not to devour this novel. Aside from the pace, Todd’s narrative voice is sweet and funny, and his journey from innocence to awakening is mesmerising. He makes mistakes that threaten to consume him, and has to make a heart-breaking sacrifice. But he makes good choices too, and it’s satisfying watching him start to come of age (even if he takes some pretty intense punishment along the way).

And then there is Ness’ exploration of themes of ignorance, fear and moral corruption, and how communities might react when half its population has no privacy for their thoughts.

For much of the book, I had no idea what was going on (because Todd doesn’t) – although I could take some good guesses. But by the end, there are enough answers to be make the nail-biting journey worth the effort.

By the end, I was exhausted, and, to be honest, a little deflated by the cliffhanger finale. But it perfectly sets up the second book of the trilogy. Having read some non-spoiler reviews of the rest of the series, I think I’ll take a breath before diving into the rest of the series though…


Would you like politics with that?

There’s been an interesting discussion over at Fantasy & SciFi Lovin’ News & Reviews this week about religion and politics in fiction (Hey! Your politics got into my science fiction).

The general consensus among those who commented is that they don’t necessarily mind if the author is making a statement about religion or politics, as long as they’re not using a sledgehammer to drive home the point.

I have to agree. Blatant manipulation is annoying. It also reflects a lack of imagination on an author’s part.

While narrative is undeniably a powerful tool to shift mindsets (more so, than say, a lecture or sermon), the true test of an effective thought-provoking story should be how it encourages the reader/viewer to think about a particular topic. As opposed to being told what to think.

Fantasy and sci fi are ripe for analogy and metaphor, which is why the best stories in those genres often tackle big issues (racism, slavery, climate change, deforestation… even before Avatar…). First and foremost, though, these stories have to be entertaining and engaging, with strong story arcs, solid mythologies and believable characters.  Nobody’s going to argue with that.

But it’s easy to rail against heavy-handed narratives when the themes grate against our own religious, political or philosophical views. I’ve wondered if my objection to stories with agendas is as strong if I happen to agree with a writer’s leanings.

I’d like to think I’d still demand an open-minded approach, but I suspect I’m probably more forgiving if I think it’s a message the world needs to hear.

Anyway, it’s a worthwhile discussion…

A detour into the world of science fiction

Originally posted on Great Stories, 21 March 2009

I took an unexpected detour into the world of science fiction this week.

I hadn’t intended to make this a month of Stephenie Meyer-themed posts, but when The Host finally became available at my library last week, it seemed as good a time as any to have a read and see how she tackled a different genre.

While there are some recurring themes from her other books (more on that below), there’s also an exploration of some interesting themes relating to what it means to be human.

Do we, as humans, appreciate the value of what it means to experience life on this planet? In The Host, Meyer explores the idea of what it would be like to lose that right to a species with a greater curiosity.

In her story, Earth has been invaded by a species able to take over the minds of its human hosts while their bodies remain intact.

Wanderer, an invading “soul”, has been given the body of one of the few surviving human rebels, Melanie. But Wanderer finds her body’s former tenant has not gone as quietly as she should have.

Melanie fills Wanderer’s mind with visions of the man she loves, who still lives in hiding. Unable to separate herself from Melanie’s memories and the desires of the body now they share, Wanderer sets off in search of him. What follows forces Wanderer and Melanie to learn more about each other (and each other’s species) than they ever intended, forever changing their views of themselves and their existence.

In most sci-fi stories, alien colonisation generally revolves around securing a natural resource critical for survival, even if it’s simply finding room for population expansion.

But the peace-loving “souls” who colonise Earth simply set up camp in human bodies and go about living the lives as their human hosts once did. The majority do not multiply (it seems only a select number have the capacity to do so). They change nothing on the planet (except human behaviour, by making everyone pacifists) and take nothing from it.

It took me a while to work out what these invaders wanted on each planet. And then the penny dropped: the resource they’re mining is the human experience. Meyer’s alien species colonises other planets to experience life as the inhabitants do and the souls come to Earth to experience the unparalleled range of human emotions.

Wanderer abhors violence, and she and her species justify their invasion as being the only way to bring peace to Earth – rescuing it from human nature.

But while on the run with Melanie, she experiences the full gamut of human emotion – often at the receiving end – and ultimately finds a context for human violence. She comes to believe it is the ability to experience the extreme negative emotions of hatred and anger that allows humans to also experience the extremities of love and compassion.

The Host has many of Meyer’s themes from the Twilight novels: obsession, self-sacrifice, bigotry, love, and yes, even more than a hint of female masochism. Again we have a female narrative character willing to sacrifice herself (and in this case even be repeatedly physically punished) to save those she loves. Sound familiar?

The Host is definitely a unique take on the body snatchers plot, and the love triangle (cleverly touted as the first one involving only two bodies) is not quite as frustrating as I expected it to be. Actually, it becomes a love quadrangle, just to further complicate the emotional ties…

It does tend to get bogged down a bit through the middle third of the book, and there are some character frustrations, but ultimately the book delivers a very readable and often tense story that’s part sci fi thriller and part love story.

If you haven’t read Meyer yet, this could be a place start (you don’t have to be a sci fan to enjoy it). If you’re already a fan, chances are you’ll like this (slightly) more adult fare than her other work. If you’re not, it’s unlikely The Host will change your mind.

(See original post on Great Stories for past comments)