This is book two in the Chaos Walking series, following The Knife of Never Letting Go. This review does not contain spoilers for The Ask and the Answer, but it does contain spoilers for The Knife of Never Letting Go. You have been warned.
Things start out pretty grim: Todd, an illiterate native of New World, and Viola, the lone survivor of a scout ship sent ahead of several thousands of new colonists approaching on sleeper ships, have reached Haven, the biggest city on New World. Unfortunately, the cruel Mayor who killed all the women in his town thirteen years before, has beaten them to it, and the city has surrendered without a fight. Oh, and Viola’s been shot and Todd’s been captured. And then the Mayor starts with the manipulation and emotional abuse.
It’s a very dark book, even more so than the first. There’s quite a bit of torture, emotional and physical (he manages to stop just shy of the point where I would give up on a book every time). There’s terrorism, questions of acceptable methods of warfare, devils you know and devils you don’t. There are manipulative, charismatic leaders. It’s actually quite reminiscent of The Kestrel, the middle—and best—volume of Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy. However, where Alexander took his gentle man to ungentle, dehumanizing places without dehumanizing the reader, Ness’s work threatens to do just that. As an author, he’s as manipulative as the leaders he portrays. Perhaps this is a strength, but I’m not sure.
Like The Knife of Never Letting Go, it’s a gripping read, completely absorbing once it gets into your head. The characters are compelling, and their shifting emotional states and loyalties are painfully, beautifully real. I found myself meeting the (many) betrayals not with surprise or expectation, but with a sinking heart; like the characters, each betrayal made sense, and deepened the experience of reading the book. The stylistic annoyances of the first book are still present, though lessened and therefore less of a distraction; there are many fewer misspellings, and he’s toned down the habit of narrating exciting sections—
to give a sense of—
though he does slip a few times. Including during sections narrated by Viola; what is annoying but understandable if it’s supposed to represent the way Todd thinks is less understandable if it’s divorced from a particular character’s voice.
The ending lost me a bit; after five hundred pages of the story hurtling along it abruptly loses focus and tries to go three places at once without resolving anything. Too much changed too quickly, and I was hard put to keep caring.
But for those first five hundred pages, I really cared. It is significantly flawed, but The Ask and the Answer is a very powerful book.