I’ve just finished reading Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking series. Wow.
I kept putting off reading The Knife of Letting Never Go, despite the rave reviews or perhaps in spite of them. I read the sample chapter several times but kept finding other books that were clamouring more loudly to climb up my To Read list.
When I did get to the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy, I loved it. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Mr Ness has created a universe where men can hear each other’s thoughts, or ‘noise’, along with those of animals. This produces insights that can be comic, moving, tragic or horrific. It’s truly compelling, particularly when we learn women can hear male thoughts but men cannot read female minds. Unsurprisingly, the voices are unique – whether you like the characters or not.
The second book, The Ask and the Answer, didn’t wow me quite as much, although it did its job – setting the foundations for an epic finale. And man, does the third book deliver.
Monsters of Men takes the male-female human-animal-monster themes of the first two books and turns them up to 11. It adds an acute awareness of indigenous dispossession, environmental degradation and the consequences of war. It is a remarkable climax to the trilogy, even managing to introduce a new narrative perspective.
As an author working on creating my own new universe, I doff my cap to Mr Ness. He has set the bar very high indeed.
Plaudits to the President’s speechwriting team as this is a mighty effort that had to traverse rough terrain very carefully. Think about all the things this piece of writing had to achieve. It had to pay tribute to those who lost their lives to an act of cowardice. It had to send a message of hope for those survivors who were wounded or bereaved. It had to thank the civilians who had the courage to tackle the gunman as he reloaded. It had to signify strength and calm in the face of a nation factionalised by gun culture.
It did all that. It also had to somehow make sense of a senseless act. To tell people around the planet that evil won’t win.
The line that resonated most strongly with me makes us all world leaders in the struggle against hate and violence. It states: “We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us.”
Back when Game as Ned was being pitched to various publishers, there was feedback that a particular scene in the story, a vicious and violent assault, might be considered “too edgy”. This feedback didn’t come from the editorial wings of companies. It came from the marketing divisions who thought it might limit their potential sales.
I’d already come under fire for my writing of the scene and had reworked it extensively. The moment isn’t graphic and I maintained it was integral to the story. Sometimes it takes a major incident such as this assault to be the catalyst for character action and growth.
I do wonder what rock the marketing folks are living under. In my visits to schools this year I have had extensive contact with teen readers, teachers and librarians. Some schools have been a tad squeamish about bad language in (other) YA fiction but none have raised the assault scene with me.
I can confidently say that teens are way more worldly than when I was in secondary school – more hardened to the “edgier” aspects of life. Whether this is a good thing is a debate for another time but check out the bleak-but-brilliant UK TV series Skins if you want a sense of where some YA kids are at today.
I can offer further insight into the teen mind to let the marketing folks out there know that “edgy” isn’t what it used to be. For the past five years I have judged the secondary school short story competition for a rural show (that’s a country fair for any US readers). Here is the list of topics tackled by the year 8, 9 and 10 entrants for 2008:
Loneliness/abandonment (x 3)
Poverty/homelessness (x 4)
Domestic violence (x 2)
Bullying (x 4)
Heartbreak (x 2)
We also had plane crash carnage, Viking pillagers, truancy, fantasy and a rare but joyous hint of humour.
In the years I’ve been reading these stories, domestic violence, suicide and bullying have featured prominently. The teen years can be a dark place.