First things first: I LOVED it, if you haven’t: GO READ IT (but start with the first book in the series, The Knife of Never Letting Go).
Like the first installment of the series, this book proves how intelligent dystopian YA can be. How cleverly some of the big questions and inequalities of human history can be discussed in a fictional setting. It also showed how unsatisfying some of the other dystopian Young Adult worlds were that I previously read about. And it for once and for all silences the argument that Young Adult books are just for teens and have nothing to offer adults. Want to disagree with me about that? Go read this series first, and Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. Ahem. Have I ever voiced such a strong opinion before on this blog? I don’t think so. And I don’t mean to be disrespectful, I just, feel so passionate about this book.
The Ask and The Answer picks up where The Knife of Never Letting Go left off. Which was predictable, perhaps, given the major cliffhanger at the end of that book. As Ana states in her review, it takes the themes of “gender and identity and growing up and violence” as present in The Knife of Never Letting Go, further, describes them in a different and even more complicated world, and turns the story a whole lot darker. Whereas the Knife of Never Letting Go tackled difficult subjects, but allowed the reader to be charmed with Todd and Viola, The Ask and The Answer is far less friendly. However, the quality of the story is such that whatever bad things occur, the reader is still allowed to care for the main characters. A difficult, and sometimes confusing, feat, which is one of the many reasons that I think this book is of such quality. I would not have been able to fall in love with the series had I not found the charm in the first book. This second book only further substantiates that love, albeit in a dark and more challenging way. It may not have been the natural progression of the story I had somehow envisioned at the end of The Knife of Never Letting Go, the second half of the book in particular takes the story towards themes I would never have imagined possible to discuss so outright in Young Adult literature (though I am awfully glad Ness did), but having read it, I feel it was an amazing thing to do. And I am left somewhat in awe of Patrick Ness as an author. Is there anything he wouldn’t be able to pull off?
And that is really all I can say without spoilers. So warning: ALL THE SPOILERS for this book and The Knife of Never Letting Go ahead. Do not read on if you haven’t read The Ask and the Answer.
Having arrived in the safe haven that is now renamed New Prentisstown, under the rule of Mayor, now called President, Prentiss, Todd and Viola are separated. Viola is healed at a hospital by female healers, while Todd is locked up in a tower with the old mayor of the town, and is set to work together with Davy Prentiss. Set to work to put the new order of things into place.
Yes, as Ana said, The Ask and The Answer still discusses the themes of gender, identity and growing up and violence, but it does so in the setting of a confined town, under the totalitarian rule of President Prentiss. And so the book, as a Northern European reader, inevitably reminded me of the Second World War, with its themes that we have come to associate with totalitarian regimes: indoctrination, “ethnic cleansing”, scapegoating. Of course, being a dystopian novel, it could be read as an example of any number of regimes during history, which is another of the novel’s strong suits.
What makes this book so strong, and so dark, is that it does not take the route of pitting the “inherently good” Todd and Viola, against the “inherently bad” President Prentiss and his army. Instead, it discusses the ambiguous understandings of “good” and “bad” during wartime in a number of ways. The book starts with a quote by Nietzsche:
Battle not with monsters
lest you become a monster
and if you gaze into the abyss
the abyss gazes into you
This is the most important motif of the series, if I were to pinpoint one right now, before having read the final installment: “war makes monsters of man”, which Mayor Prentiss conveniently bends to his own goals as
“Finally, we come to the real thing, the thing that makes men men, the thing we were born for, Todd.” He rubs his hands together and his eyes flash as he says the word. “War.”
Before I get to that final, horrible, cliffhanger, let me come back to the idea of ambiguous morality in The Ask and The Answer. There are several ways in which this is discussed and I want to highlight a few of them.
First, there is Todd. My beautiful, naive, “pure”, Todd. I ache just thinking about where this book takes him. To some extent, I do not even want to contemplate what he does. Branding the Spackle, and later, branding women. (I loathe the fact that that somehow makes me shudder even more, we all know the Spackle are just as much living things, why do I shudder more because of the idea of branding women, are they painted more as “fellow humans” for that very reason?) Todd, who is unable to kill anyone, somehow gets caught up in branding Spackle and women, some of whom do die as a result of the branding. All I can come up with now is “this is so fucked up”. Of course, that is exactly what Ness is trying to show. But sometimes I wish it weren’t, sometimes I wish we could just shelter Todd and Viola from that violent world. Again, exactly what Ness was trying to show: no one is unaffected by war.
The Ask and The Answer discusses indoctrination, the question how totalitarianism can exist, and why no one voices opposition, the “why is everyone passively letting this happen?” The difficult question of how soldiers who do not truly believe in the ideal can be made to do the pragmatic stuff tied to the ideal (ie. Todd).
The weird thing is, throughout all what happens with Todd, all that he does, I still feel sympathetic towards him. It makes me question my own morality a little. It scared me. But I do not want to give up on Tod.
Tod’s side of the story is connected with “The Ask”, while Viola narrates her involvement in “The Answer”. Here is the clever thing again: no true divide between “good” and “bad”. While I think it is the natural reaction of people to want to oppose the one thing they are against by uniting under another strong leader, this book asks the question if that is always healthy, but it also shows that it is sometimes the only option. The leader of The Answer, mistress Coyle, clearly isn’t ideal, and is later truly shown to be so caught up in a fight for ideals that she loses sight of humanity and the value of individual lives. Again, genius, Mr. Ness.
In the middle of all of this is what I suspected was part of the idea behind creating a gender divide in the first book: underlining a divide to emphasise the dangers of thinking in such terms. In The Ask and The Answer this really plays out. Part of Mayor Prentiss order is a strict separation of women and men, and an ideology in which woman are “the enemy”, because mistress Coyle is female and thus all women must feel an inherent “natural” sympathy towards her. Such clever commentary on what has been faulty in the reasoning of some strands of feminism, and those opposing feminism, for ages. The gender divide is challenged in the book as well: both men and women can become “monsters” through war, both women and men can oppose President Prentiss, etcetera. I am curious to see if Patrick Ness will discuss ethnic divides (for I assume this is what the Spackle-as-slaves allegory stands for) in the same manner in the third book, Monsters of Men.
And so we get to the cliffhanger. The scapegoated Spackle now return for war. Honestly? This threw me again. I mean, here I had thought only to pity the Spackle, and now they return with arms to fight all the others. Understandable, given their treatment, but how will I ever pick sides now? (I’m not supposed to be able to, I understand, the confusion just shows how conditioned we are to think in “good” vs. “bad”).
I cannot even begin to envision what this will result in in the last installment in the series. What will happen in the discussion of the cruelties of war that is based on faulty ideologies on so many fronts? Will the reader ever learn “the truth” about what happened in Prentisstown, to the women, in the war with the Spackle years ago? Arrgg. There are so many questions I have left. I have been resisting picking up Monsters of Men, because I am afraid of what will happen, because I am afraid of this series ending, but I am unsure how long I will be able to hold out.
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