We ride after the army thru the west end of town, down the main road, past what can only be the wreckage of the original jails the Answer burnt down in their biggest attack before today. I only ever been down here once, when I ran thru it the other way with Viola in my arms, carrying her down the zigzag road when she was dying, carrying her into what I thought was safety, but all I found was the man riding by my side, the man who killed a thousand Spackle to start this war, the man who tortured Viola for informayshun he already knew, the man who murdered his own son--
"And what other kind of man would you want leading you into battle?" he says, reading my Noise. "What other kind of man is suitable for war?"
A monster, I think, remembering what Ben told me once. War makes monsters of men.
"Wrong," says the Mayor. "It's war that makes us men in the first place. Until there's war, we are only children."
For various reasons, despite my good intentions - and a two-book head start on the shortlist - I singularly failed to get my Arthur C Clarke Award reading and posting finished in time this year. The always enjoyable Award reception was just two weeks ago, now; the prize went to Lauren Beukes' Zoo City, a result that pleased me, even if I was rooting for Ian McDonald's completely fabulous The Dervish House.
The fact that it's all over for this year doesn't mean I'm not going to write about the rest of the shortlist, mind. Next up is Monsters of Men, the characteristically intense concluding volume of Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking trilogy (books one and two of which I discussed here). More or less as I'd learned to expect by this stage, the final instalment proved to be another unabashed emotional rollercoaster, brimming with yelling, cliffhangers, explosions, yelling over the sound of explosions, and plain old Noise. It was, in short, good to be back with Todd and Viola, Ness' brave, determined, and fiercely loyal pair of narrators. If book one was a road movie, and book two a dystopia, book three plunges us into war, on at least three different fronts.
[Spoilers follow for the first two books, along with minor spoilers for this one. But frankly, if you intend to read the trilogy, it'd be better all round if you shut the computer down now, and come back to this review when you're done.]
The Chaos Walking trilogy is set on a distant planet that human beings begun colonising some decades ago - hospitable, but for one environmental quirk that has caused serious social rupture among the first wave of settlers: every living thing on the planet, whether it evolved there or travelled across space to reach the place and only arrived yesterday, thinks out loud. Constantly, and inescapably - with one or two very strong-minded exceptions - everyone broadcasts their thoughts to everyone else, in a buzz of words and emotions known as Noise. Everyone, that is, except human women. Some men learned, grudgingly, to accept this; some isolated themselves from human contact; a few, however, reacted badly to the abrupt appearance of such an unignorable new power differential at the heart of human society (and one that, moreover, favoured women). Widescale gendered violence was the dark secret of the settlers' past that Todd discovered during the first book, The Knife of Never Letting Go; in book two, The Ask and the Answer, tensions over this issue - and more generally over who would shape the future of the planet's human community - boiled over into fresh violence and some deeply disturbing repressive governance.
The story resumes in Monsters of Men with things getting even worse - it seems impossible, but it's true - for the inhabitants of Haven/New Prentisstown. Just as the city's leading figures - the Mayor, a brutal dictator with the power of mind control, and his implacable rival Mistress Coyle, a death-obsessed terrorist - have succeeded in bringing the population to open civil war, two groups of newcomers appear. The first is an army of Spackle, the planet's indigenous inhabitants, who fought a war with the human settlers some decades back, and were subsequently enslaved by them in large numbers; they are Not Happy. The second set of arrivals are the two-person crew of a scout ship, sent ahead of the main body of fresh human settlers - the same sort of ship that crash-landed in The Knife of Never Letting Go, killing all of its passengers except Viola. The scout ship is tiny, but significantly better armed than anything on the face of the planet.
...What could possibly go wrong(er)?
And the Spackle keep coming, climbing over the bodies of soldiers, and their Noises are wide open and so are the Noises of every soldier and it's like a thousand wars at once, not just the one I'm seeing but ones happening over and over again in the Noise of the men and the Spackle round me till the air and the sky and my brain and my soul are filled with war and I'm bleeding it outta my ears and spitting it outta my mouth and it's like it's the only thing I ever knew, the only thing I can ever remember, the only thing that's ever gonna happen to me--
Oh, yes; that.
In my previous post on the trilogy, I discussed Ness' style at some length: fast-paced, confrontational first-person narration, peppered with incident and with bursts of staccato sentences and single-line paragraphs that drag the reader along to heart-in-mouth cliffhangers - and then inexorably over the page to the next chapter, to find out what happens next. Here, therefore, I'm going to concentrate largely on the final book's themes: violence, forgiveness, identity, and the sadly rather fudged conclusion to the arc about gender begun in The Knife of Never Letting Go.
To the primary narrators, Todd and Viola, Ness adds a very welcome third voice this time round: the Return, a deeply angry individual within the enormous Spackle army. In The Ask and the Answer, the enslaved Spackle of New Prentisstown were slaughtered in cold blood by the Mayor's men. The Return was the sole survivor of this massacre, an experience that has left him emotionally shattered, and bent on revenge; he comes back having raised an army of free Spackle. Through him we see how the Spackle - or rather, as they call themselves, the Land - have developed a society in which the involuntary sharing of one's thoughts and feelings through Noise is embraced as a source of harmony and a way of communicating without barriers, rather than feared and resented as a loss of privacy.
But the Return's time among the humans - the Clearing, in the Land's resonant terminology - has changed him in ways that make it hard for him to find a home with the Land. When he explains to the Land who he is, they react with "great shock, an astonished recoil" to the modified slave language that he speaks: "something so alien, so individual". He hears in their Noise the guilt and disgust his arrival provokes in them; even though they come to him, telling him,
that I was one of them, that I had returned to them now, that I was safe.
That I was not alone.
But before they did all of that, there was shock, there was distaste, there was dread, there was shame.
Here at last was the Land. And it was afraid to touch me.
He, in turn, is led to shut parts of himself off from them:
For I have lived my life among the Clearing and I have learned much from them.
Including how to hide my thoughts, how to conceal what I feel and think. How to layer my voice so it is harder to read.
Alone among the Land, I am not fully joined to the Land's single voice.
The Return is an extremely effective addition to Monsters of Men, deepening the trilogy's exploration of identity and belonging, and of agency and leadership. In the isolation of the Return's individuality lies both his destructiveness and his strength of character; cut off from the comfort of the collective, he can find no solace nor safe outlet for his rage, and - in common with all the major characters - carries out a series of reckless, selfish acts, repeatedly derailing attempts to resolve the situation with anything other than violence. But his singular experiences mean that he can also make complex, difficult choices (both good and bad) in a way that it is not obvious the rest of the Land can, and he is capable of - although intensely resistant to - compassion and regret. He has (very affecting) memories of the love he shared with his "one in particular", who was killed by the Mayor's men, and it is these memories that allow him to understand the feelings that drive Todd, even though they are enemies. It is for these qualities - the combination of individuality and fellow-feeling - that he is singled out as a potential future leader of the Land.
The Return is a much-needed expression of the other, non-human side of the story just as the two forces close in brutal battle; his viewpoint layers ambiguity over every episode in which the humans debate exactly how much violence they need to commit to protect themselves. And debate they do, although Bradley from the scout ship is in a minority with voice-of-reason retorts like this:
"They attacked us."
"After we attacked them," Bradley says. "After they attacked us, after we attacked them, and so on and so on until we're all dead."
Bradley is also the voice of unattainably impersonal objectivity; Todd and Viola, trying their best to resist the violence but getting drawn into it over and over again anyway, led by heart and gut against wisdom and reason, are closer to the difficult majority experience. The plot contrives to put each of them in peril at least once every hundred pages, forcing the other into a fraught, emotional cliffhanger and - at times - a panicked burst of protective violence, sense and broader consequences be damned. After one such act averted (by the fact that someone else took action before she did), Viola looks back with dread on what her feelings for Todd have made her capable of:
Simone and Mistress Coyle are arguing but I'm really not hearing them--
Because I also know this.
When Simone asked me what to do--
I was going to say fire the missile.
I was going to cause this damage myself. I was going to say, yes, do it, fire it--
Kill all these Spackle, these Spackle with their real reason to attack someone who deserves it more than anyone on this planet--
If it would have saved Todd, it wouldn't have mattered, I was going to do it--
Mistress Coyle rebukes Viola for "making it personal at the expense of the entire world", and Viola herself later wonders,
If this is what Todd and I would do for each other, does that make us right?
Or does it make us dangerous?
As the Return repeatedly demonstrates, letting emotion cloud judgement can have devastating effects for many more people than just yourself. At the same time - here, as on several occasions, the book will not allow an easy answer - it is the emotional tie between Todd and Viola that enables them to overcome the corrosive mood of war, to think past themselves and continue to view others with compassion. "It's because nothing and no-one matters to you that you're willing to blow the world to pieces!" says Viola in response to Mistress Coyle's rebuke, and while she is not entirely correct; Mistress Coyle's problem is that the thing that matters to her is an abstract ideal, and she cares about it so much that she is willing, time and again, to put it above any individual person, or group of people. Where Viola is a better person than Mistress Coyle is not in having someone who matters to her, but in recognising (most of the time) that others also have people who matter to them.
In keeping with one of the trilogy's stated themes, some of these perilous situations are not real, but the products of faulty, limited, or misinterpreted information. Ness has a great time with the possibilities offered by the scout ship's communications technology, chiefly a clutch of flying probes that can transmit images back to video screens within the ship. As might be expected, having an eye on events only adds complications. We duly get scenes where the view is blocked at a key moment; scenes where a probe is not close enough to pick up sound; and, of course, scenes where the thing cuts out just when it is most needed. It's not subtle in its manipulation of narrative tension, but it's compelling nonetheless, and helps drive home Ness' interest in the way blunders and pigheadedness often drive such conflict, even among well-meaning people.
Todd, too, is sucked into fighting by the side of the Mayor, the man he reviles, out of the faint hope that in doing so he will make Viola safe; in the process, he finds both horror - unsurprisingly, it turns out that war is even worse when you can hear the fear and pain of everyone around you, on both sides, in their Noise - and a grubby sort of exultation that brings him uncomfortably closer to the Mayor:
That's the nasty, nasty secret of war--
When yer winning
When yer winning, it's ruddy thrilling--
For their parts, the Mayor and Mistress Coyle find - for a time - some common ground in the common goal of leading people into violence ("'You can't just stop fighting and call it peace, my girl,' Mistress Coyle says. 'The war goes on even as you're negotiating with the enemy.' 'Quite so,' says the Mayor.") Mostly, though, they can't resist their old one-upmanship; neither one of them can bear to let their rival have an inch, refusing to see the situation as anything other than a zero-sum game even as their power struggle repeatedly jeopardises the survival of the settlers. This all starts to get repetitive, frankly, but Ness uses Todd and Viola's younger, more straightforward view of the world to mine some darkly funny satire as the Mayor and Coyle start "fighting a war over who can be most peaceful", with Viola explaining:
Mistress Coyle, meanwhile, looks happier than I've ever seen her. She's even started talking about how to make the truce. Apparently, this involves a lot of blowing things up. Mistress Braithwaite, who did my soldiering training what seems like a lifetime ago, plants bombs in trees, hoping to show the Spackle we can outwit them and also hoping to capture one who isn't killed in the blast. Then we'll send it back saying we'll keep blowing things up if they don't talk to us about peace.
Mistress Coyle swears this is how it worked last time.
Or, as Todd puts it, more succinctly:
You kill people to tell them you want to stop killing them.
The fact that Todd is being succinct is a new development in Monsters of Men, the combined effect of his increasing control over his and others' Noise - as taught by the Mayor (never a good sign) - and his desire to hide from the traumas of the war. Cleverly, this is expressed both directly, as he reflects on how he has achieved this control, and in a more general withdrawal of Todd's narrative voice, a paring down of the giddy information overload of the younger Todd in the first two books. When Todd is hiding something from his Noise, he also hides it from the reader. This can be seen in the following extract, when the Mayor reveals - having, as ever, waited for the moment when sharing the information would give him the most power - that his subordinates have developed a cure for the blood poisoning he inflicted on New Prentisstown's women in book two:
"Why didn't you tell me, tho?" I say. "That you were close to a cure?"
"Because I didn't want to risk your disappointment if I failed."
He looks at me for a long time, trying to read me, but I'm so good at it now I don't think even he can hear me.
The Todd of Knife or Ask would have reacted to the Mayor's reply, at least in his narration; but in Monsters we are not always privy to his feelings. And if we are left out, so is Viola; her irritation at this demonstrates very neatly the imbalance that Noise creates between those who have it (and must reveal themselves) and those who don't (and thus can remain private), and I was delighted to see Todd calling her on her unthinking privilege, and the power it gives her over him:
"Viola, you know me. Out of everyone left alive on this planet, yer the one who does."
But I'm shaking my head. "Maybe not any more. Since I stopped being able to hear your--"
He really frowns at this. "So that's what you want, is it? I'm fine as long as you can hear everything I think but not the other way round? We're friends as long as you've got the power?"
"It's not about power, Todd. It's about trust--"
"And I ain't done enough for you to trust me?"
It's a shame, in light of this exchange, that Monsters of Men shies away from the central conflict and mystery of the trilogy: the fact that men have Noise, and women - alone of living things on the planet - do not. I share Abigail's frustration that the book fails to explore the issue - still less explain or resolve it - during what is, after all, a fairly hefty page count, and that the final statement on the matter is such a shallow one. A human character who has lived among the Land for some time - to say who it is would be a substantial spoiler - describes to Todd the wonderful future in which everyone, human and Land alike, will share in the joy of unfettered understanding through Noise, such that there "won't be any division twixt humans". When Todd not unreasonably points out that women don't have Noise - and surely, this reader editorialises with venomous sweetness, you couldn't possibly have forgotten that women are, y'know, humans too? - the other character brushes aside the objection as if it barely matters:
He stops. I'd forgotten, he says. It's been so long since I've really been around them. He brightens again. Spackle women have noise. And if there's a way for men to stop having Noise--he looks at me--There must be a way for women to start.
It's a cop-out, for which there is not a shred of in-story evidence beyond this ridiculous voice-of-God authorial intrusion; a head-patting there, there dear reassurance to shut down such killjoy objections. For a woman reader of what is otherwise a marvellously complex series of books, it's a deeply disappointing and alienating stumble at the final hurdle. In the heat of the reading moment, buoyed up by the heady action, it's easy to skim past it. But the further I get from the breakneck reading pace, the more bitter a taste this moment leaves behind.