Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

Monsters of Men - Patrick NessMonsters of Men – Patrick Ness
Walker Books, 2010

Who expected anything other than me loving this book after my enthousiasm about the first and second installment of the Chaos Walking series? I thought so. And you are right, of course. I love this series. I want everyone to read it, but at the same time I am scared that someone will find fault with it, because I am not sure if I can remain impartial in that kind of debate. I may take it personally. I know, that sounds ridiculous, but, unfortunately, I really think it may be true. I will add that Monsters of Men did not surpass my love for the second book in the series, but then, what could top The Ask and The Answer? Actually, I think this may the book I liked the least of the series. And yet I loved it to death. There you have it, another glowing, gushing review from me, because I honestly couldn’t do anything but, because of how fiercely I feel about this story, its themes, and its characters.

In my post about The Ask and The Answer I said that I felt “war makes monsters of men” was the central theme of the series. To some extent, this is true, but at the same time the humanity that can be found in anyone, despite the monstrosity of war, despite how much you’d like there to be a “big bad”, may be more dominant in the book. If this series portrays anything, it is the ambiguity of any situation. How we would like to pick sides, and be right, but how no one is ever just “evil” or “good”. This perspective is underlined through the multiple narratives in this third installment, enabling the reader to get an even broader view of the situation than just having Viola and Todd as narrators in the second book. There are traces of good, and evil, and being caught up in circumstances and ideologies on “your” side, to every narrator of the story. The ambiguity of war is further underlined in many dialogues, in which the perspective of the people at hand is always an important factor. For example:

“…as far as any objective observer can see, the President is a mass murderer and Mistress Coyle is a terrorist.”
“I’m a general,” the Mayor says.
“And I’m fighting for freedom,” says Mistress Coyle.

On the personal interests tied up with any grander scheme of war:

“But you can’t make war personal,” I say, “or you’ll never make the right decisions.”
“And if you didn’t make personal decisions, you wouldn’t be a person. All war is personal somehow, isn’t it? For somebody? Except it’s usually hate.”
“Lee—”
“I’m just saying how lucky he is to have someone love him so much they’d take on the whole world.” His Noise is uncomfortable, wondering what I’m looking like, how I’m responding. “That’s all I’m saying.”
“He’d do it for me,” I say quietly.
I’d do it for you too, Lee’s Noise says.
And I know he would.
But those people who die because we do it, don’t they have people who’d kill for them?
So who’s right?

Ambiguity is caught in the characters and the development of them in this third book too. Todd, Viola, the third narrator (which I won’t name to avoid spoilers?) all make decisions that could be labeled “wrong”, and yet you manage to feel and sympathise with them. That is the power of this series, in showing that there is never an absolute right or wrong, that the personal may necessitate decisions that are wrong on a larger scale, or the other way around, that on both sides people believe, and hurt, and die. Ness manages to get the ambiguous nature of humanity and war across because he does not shy away from the more painful descriptions of casualties and full-on battle, but he also never forgets the personal side to the story.

Just a few things I loved about this series:

  • ambiguity; the creation of artificial divisions to enable discussion of them, to enable the portrayal of humanity across gender, class, and ethnic lines.
  • the role of love in any form: friendship, family, relationships that are just developing or that are old, and the portrayal of gay relationships as completely natural. No big fuzz surround them, no “pom-pom-di-dom, here comes the big reveal”, no need to discuss them, they are just there. I may love the fact that they are not made problematic even more, since they are part of what was originally a religious settler community.
  • Animals. I cannot get over the noise of animals. Manchee, the “boy colt” -s and “submit” from the horses that enable you to learn about the nature of the people taking care of them in just a few syllables…
  • It does not shy from the difficult, the painful, and the beautiful. Ness chose to portray a society in all its aspects, without sugar coating any of it because it was written for Young Adults.

[spoilers]

Two spoiler-y things that I would like to discuss. First, the return of Ben. There was a moment there, when he was re-introduced, when I was angry at Ness. “Why do you do this, now I need to worry about another person, and surely you will kill him off, and I do not need the extra drama, because there is so much here already!” But in the end, I appreciated his introduction all the more. Todd needed Ben to comfort him into knowing that despite his mistakes and misinterpretations, and the blame he will carry with him, he did the best he could. Furthermore, Ben’s position as a “bridge” between both societies, his ability to learn and adapt to the information overload in a non-violent way.. [Can I just add that I loved that for once, it wasn't the "white, male, and dominant" society that won out, but it was shown that adaption and learning from eachother can be worthwhile, how perhaps, the "ethnic other" has a valuable lifestyle, that may be the healthier approach?]

Second, Todd. That ending. For once I am the optimist and I believe he will heal. He has to heal. But I do not blame Ness for another round of ambiguous endings. I think it was rather perfect to end on the note of division between hope and the loss of such an important character in the book.

[/spoilers]

I am rather afraid that this post does nothing but reiterate again and again how much I loved this series. As I said to Ana on twitter yesterday, my review can be summarised as:

Writing Monsters of Men post right now. It kind of looks like this “gush, gush, gush, loved it, loved it, write more plz mr. Ness”

But all of it is true. I firmly believe the Chaos Walking series is (one of) the best things that happened to Young Adult lit. It is also the series that I will remember for a long time as one of the most important and beautiful of the last few years in my personal reading life.

Now, if only we could start a lobby to have any Dutch publisher publish the translation of this series. I can’t believe that hasn’t happened yet!

Other Opinions: Vulpes Libris, Things Mean A Lot, Bart’s Bookshelf, Book Journey, Rhapsody in Books, It’s All About Books, Life With Books, There’s A Book, Jenny’s Books, Fyrefly’s Book Blog, Presenting Lenore, Rat’s Reading, You’ve GOTTA Read This, Books, Time, and Silence, Book Addiction, Coffee Spoons, Page247, Bookish Blather, Book Harbinger, Stuff as Dreams are Made On, Sci-Fi Fan Letter, thebookbind, Alita Reads, Regular Rumination, Librarian’s Book Reviews, In Which Our Hero, Eclectic/Eccentric, The Written World, Lindy Reads and Reviews.
Did I miss yours? Let me know and I will add your review to the list.

20 responses to “Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

  1. I think your tweet review says it all! :–) But I would have liked a smidgeon less ambiguity about Todd at the end…..

    • I can imagine that. I usually dislike ambiguous endings, but somehow I didn’t mind. I think it was because at least this way I was allowed to hope for the best,

  2. I did love this series to death as well, even though I think there were some issues. But whatever. It sure will stay with me. I didn’t so much mind the ambiguity at the end, but that whole “he’s dead, no he’s not” drama upset me. I felt like Ness was messing with me.

    • *goes off to finally read your review of this book*

      There were times I felt Ness was messing with me as well, most notably the introduction of Ben. But I forgave him ;)

  3. I have this series and my kids are repeatedly telling me to read it, along with a lot of other good blogger friends. I am so glad that you loved this installment, and can’t wait to see what I think.

    • I agree, you should read it. I don’t like pushing books on people, but I really think more people need to read this. If you do, I’m curious to hear what you think of it.

  4. I wonder what this was about I saw a tweet that it had won a prize here in the uk ,not sure if is really my sort of thing but pleased you liked it Iris ,all the best stu

    • Hey Stu, the book that recently won an award was “A Monster Calls” by Patrick Ness. Same author, but not part of this series. It’s a children’s book about cancer. Also very impressive. I am about to review it ;)

  5. oh right half read tweet ,look forward to your review of that ,all the best stu

  6. have the first one on my kindle only read the first chapter but perhaps, after reading this glowing review, I should give it another go

  7. That line about “So who’s right?” is maybe my favorite line of the entire book. My favorite, that is, except for every single moment that includes Ben. I cry just thinking about the scene when he comes back, oh, and he’s singing the song! Oh. That’s the best scene ever. I could not believe Patrick Ness had enough mercy in his heart to spare Ben after all the previous sadness.

    (I’m still sad Cillian’s really dead. That’s still sad forever.)

  8. Yes! Write more please Mr Ness! I have A Monster Calls on my shelf, but I’m hesitant to read it because then there will be no more Patrick Ness to read.

    I don’t have too much more to say about this, other that ditto to everything in your post.

    And oh, you had to go and bring up Lee. Oh Lee :(

  9. Oh this series and the things it did to my mental state… ;)

    I agree though, The Ask and the Answer, is my favourite of the series.

  10. If you like the part about learning from the aliens, you will like lots of other science fiction. I can see you liking Joan Slonczewski’s books, which are almost always about what humans can learn from aliens, and the strange ways they have to stretch their minds to learn it.

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