Patrick Ness planned well. The first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy has a name that you can remember. (The title of the sequel, The Ask and the Answer, similarly balances mystery and familiarity.) In Knife, Ness introduces not only a protagonist but an entire world with a conundrum. In fact, this book is full of conundrums. Even the bad guys have them, as Ness patiently reveals.
After hooking readers with the title, Ness shoves them into a world that’s immediately as familiar and strange as that title. The narrative is so homey and immediate, written in the first-person perspective of a boy who’s almost thirteen, that much of what’s strange fades until the strangeness builds up and bursts out.
The central premise, obvious in the first page of the book, is that the protagonist, Todd Hewitt, and his dog, Manchee, have a telepathic connection. In fact, Todd can hear the thoughts, referred to as “Noise” throughout the book, of other people and animals, and they can hear his. This was the result, we soon learn, of a germ that made something else happen, something that leaves Todd’s society looking very different from our own.
The first big concept is deceptively simple: on an alien world, people have telepathic connections with each other and animals. The soon-revealed other results of what caused those connections are not simple, but flow smoothly and naturally from the cause. The most remarkable part of Ness’ artistry, I think, is weaving these great concepts into a narrative that jolts the reader with surprising tension, and not a little violence, interspersed with very real human considerations (fairness and justice come up a lot without preachiness on the author’s part).
Ness mercilessly tests his protagnist, Todd Hewitt, with physical and emotional distress. Todd is joined in the book by a few strong and deep supporting characters, and an abundance of antagonists. All of the significant characters speak and act as genuine individuals. For example, Todd’s dog, Manchee, “speaks” (telepathically) and behaves in a way that suits what I know of dog behavior very well. The very beginning of the book reads,
The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say. About anything.
“Need a poo, Todd.”
“Shut up, Manchee.”
Ness indulges in a little potty humor to get the point across, but when Todd gets fed up with Manchee and swats him, Manchee’s reaction (“Ow? Todd? Ow?”) neatly captures the strange and familiar all at once.
There’s plenty more “Ow” to come. The supporting characters are defined by loss, and Ness masterfully parcels out the pace at which these losses is revealed. One character in particular comes to life as fully as Todd, and the workings of narrative perspective mesh tightly with the world and the characters’ relationship. I’m treading carefully to avoid spoiling this, because it’s a clever and significant aspect of the book.
Antagonists, too, get their due – although not necessarily in any moral sense. There’s no hiding who Todd’s enemies are. They come across as enemies at the start, and not only because Todd can hear their thoughts. However, they have complex motivations, some of them almost superhuman abilities, and Ness reveals them as slowly and tantalizingly as he does the protagonist and his allies.
One of the further joys of reading The Knife of Never Letting Go is the language. Todd’s first-person narrative is laced with misspellings. This marks his speech as accented, and him as barely literate. However, the publisher (Candlewick) has indulged Ness with a special, loose font (and later, an explosion of fonts) to indicate the feeling of Noise Todd hears from other characters. It’s integrated into the paperback cover design as well, and generally used to good effect.
The Knife of Never Letting Go is violent, morally rich, and a compelling read. I started to read it out loud to my kids (then 11 and seven years old), and soon realized it was inappropriate. The conflicts in the Harry Potter books are, initially, much tamer and more cartoonish, though they mature as Harry ages, and the fear is more sustained than in the rip-roaring plots Rick Riordan drags Percy Jackson through. Ness is relentless, and for this I agree with the publisher’s age minimum recommended age of 14 on the back cover. I’m way over the maximum of 18, but I think it’s safer to ignore that than the minimum.