A gloomy misty forest with a river snaking through

Why ‘Chaos Walking’ by Patrick Ness is a Masterpiece

Patrick Ness’ young adult sci-fi/fantasy series, ‘Chaos Walking,’ is my favourite series of all time for a reason. I first stumbled across it in a charity shop a few summers ago. I was browsing, looking for a cheap read to pass the time on holiday in North Devon, and a long title caught my eye: ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go.’

I was immediately intrigued. For a book of its genre, it had a very elaborate and strange title. I read the blurb and felt my excitement rise. “Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks.” I’d never seen a premise like it, and I was delighted to notice the copy was signed by the author. Even better, it was £1.50.

“Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks.”

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What I didn’t realise was how lucky I was discovering this novel. ‘Chaos Walking’ changed so much for me – the way I viewed the craft of novel writing, the way I think characters should be developed in books, and (among many!) the themes of masculinity, genocide and power.

‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’

A knife is planted in the ground next to a stree stump and is sticking out, hilt first, in the air.

‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’ is a story that follows Todd Hewitt, a young boy on the cusp of manhood living in a coloniser settlement of men on a planet where a disease has killed all the women and caused all men to hear each other’s thoughts – whether they like it or not. They call it ‘Noise,’ and Patrick Ness’ genius is exhibited in his writing style. The way he writes the novel mirrors the Noise exactly, and feels like you are reading into Todd’s thoughts yourself.

Ness plays with punctuation, repetition, sentence strucutre, spelling and grammar to create this effect. It is not overwhelming – I found it incredibly beautiful and fast paced, which is exactly what I look for in a book series. Despite being a relatively long novel, I devoured it in a couple of days because of the genius writing style.

“She ain’t my girl,” I say, low.

“What?” Doctor Snow says.

“What?” Viola says.

“She’s her own girl,” I say. “She don’t belong to anyone.”

And does Viola ever LOOK at me.

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’ has conflicts that feel genuine and authentic. Todd’s life is turned upside down when he meets Viola – the first girl he has ever seen and the first person he has ever met that doesn’t have Noise. His masculinity and adulthood are threatened by her, but together they grow a deep friendship alongside Todd’s dog, Manchee (whose thoughts you can hear too!), and overcome life-threatening challenges on their journey to safety as they are chased by crazed religious fanatic Aaron.

‘The Ask and the Answer’

A rip in the middle of a blank piece of paper peels back to reveal three black question marks.

‘The Ask and the Answer’ is the sequel to ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go,’ and it takes the narrative places beyond your expectations. Patrick Ness’ command of character over the whole ‘Chaos Walking’ series is incredible – for the first time when reading a YA book, I really felt like the teenaged characters WERE teenagers.

For the first time when reading a YA book, I really felt like the teenaged characters WERE teenagers.

There is so much depth to every single character in this novel. Specifically, with Todd, I appreciated the conflict of what it means to be a man after meeting a girl for the first time, and then how loyalty and selflessness work in their friendship once they are split apart by the Mayor. Emphasis on their friendship. This novel keeps up with the platonic relationship between Viola and Todd, which is truly a breath of fresh air.

I don’t want to give too much away in terms of the plot of the second and third novels, but I want to highlight the complexity and psychology of Mayor Prentiss’ role in this book. He is the villain, but there is always a ‘but.’ Ness leaves you guessing at every twist and turn of this book, and introducing the Spackle pulls in other narratives that really make you think about real-world problems of racism and colonisation. You can never confirm who is good or evil in ‘Chaos Walking.’ It is all a big grey area, and at the end of the day, the characters are human, meaning flawed.

‘Monsters of Men’

Waves lap at the rocky shore of a black and white beach peppered with boulders.

‘Monsters of Men’ is the third and final book in the series, and my favourite thing about it was the abundance of POV’s we could access. We read into Todd, Viola, and the Spackle’s thoughts, each with their own distinct voice, and Viola grew exponentially in this instalment.

Viola is such an excellent role model to young women – not because she’s ‘not like other girls,’ but because she IS like other girls. She doesn’t need weapons or physical strength to be a badass. She’s emotional, sensitive, intelligent and heroic, and never compromises her femininity or seeks male approval.

“Choices may be unbelievably hard but they’re never impossible. To say you have no choice is to release yourself from responsibility and that’s not how a person with integrity acts.”

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

Further themes that are explored in this book are war, genocide, imperialism, morality, death and power. It is such a sophisticated and complex narrative, and will challenge you every chapter. I could not encourage people more to read this series. It changed my life, my writing goals and my way of reading. ‘Chaos Walking’ is a masterpiece because it is the most real-life piece of fiction I’ve ever read.

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