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Thursday, November 20, 2008

“The Knife of Never Letting Go” by Patrick Ness w/Bonus Q&A (Review & Interview by Fábio Fernandes)

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Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Spotlight of “The Knife of Never Letting Go

According to Frank Cottrell Boyce’s blurb on the back cover of “The Knife of Never Letting Go”, the new Patrick Ness novel has one of the best first sentences he has ever read “and a book that lives up to it.”

The sentence in question is:

The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing to say.

Boyce is right, but I would stretch his comment further and tell you the names of the chapters are also among the best ones I’ve ever read. “The Choices of a Knife” and “The Night of No Apologies” for example, reminded me of hardboiled novels like The Maltese Falcon. Of course, “The Knife of Never Letting Go” is no hardboiled novel. It is in fact Patrick Ness’ debut in the YA market. An extremely auspicious debut by the way. I just couldn’t stop reading it.

It may sound clichéd, or reductionist, to simply compare a book with others in order to review it. A good book should be more than the sum of its parts (or chapters, or characters), but the comparison is made so that the reader can have an idea of the time-honored tradition in which the said book is inserted.

Having said that, let’s move further and say, for argument’s sake, that the reading of “The Knife of Never Letting Go” (a simply beautiful title for a novel – Ness is a craftsman with words) was, for me, an experience reminiscent of some the best stories written by Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, adding a pinch of Philip Wylie to the mix.

Why is that? Well, some people (I’m including myself in the list) still have some prejudice with YA stories. The fact is, they really don’t know what they are talking about. The young adult literature of today is very different to the books we used to read when we were teens (in my case, thirty-some years ago).

The honorable exceptions to that rule being the aforementioned writers. Ray Bradbury in his short fantasy stories and in novels like Something Wicked This Way Comes, in which he respects the intelligence of the reader—never minding his/her age.

The same can be said of Stephen King in the story of “The Body” for example, or in The Dark Tower series, featuring children and/or teenagers in dangerous situations that serve as rites of passage to adulthood. And, as rites of passages go, there is lots of pain and suffering—but there is also a light at the end of the tunnel.

The story of “The Knife of Never Letting Go” is deceptively simple: Todd Hewitt, a thirteen-year-old boy, living in a very small, old-fashioned American town by a swamp, suffers a lot because he is the only boy his age, and none of the older boys will talk to him. That happens because of a sort of manhood ritual every boy must undergo at his fourteenth birthday. And, in a month, it will be Todd Hewitt’s time.

The first thing you notice is there are no women whatsoever in the town. Every single one of them died because of an alien disease . . . and then we discover that they are not even on Earth, but in a colony which was occupied approximately three decades before.

Upon reaching his home in Prentisstown, where he is raised by two guys who were friends with his parents (both dead now), Todd is suddenly told that he must run away from there, because he simply can’t undergo the rite of passage.

Todd doesn’t want to flee, and demands to know why this is being asked of him. But there’s something else: the same disease that took the lives of the colony’s women has also turned every man (and animals, at that) into telepaths. That means Todd can’t be told why he must go; Ben and Cillian, his foster parents, can’t even think it, for their Noise (that’s how they call their thoughts) would be promptly detected by the band of Mayor Prentiss, who rules Prentisstown with an iron fist.

From then on, everything happens so fast it’s just impossible to put the book aside. That’s because “The Knife of Never Letting Go” is a page-turner, and that’s not simply a cliché. Every ten or fifteen pages, something important happens. A new datum (or packet of data) drops on our laps and we can’t ignore it, so we keep on reading the book, following the narrative as if we were right at Todd’s side, running away with him. In this respect, Ness follows the tradition founded in science fiction by
A.E. Van Vogt, who systematized his writing method, using scenes of 800 words or so where a new complication was added or something resolved. Patrick Ness does the same, and brilliantly.

Ness´ use of language is pretty good. The personality of Todd Hewitt is also very well-balanced, and, even though he can be a pain in the neck sometimes, the reader sympathizes with him because of all his suffering. Sadly, I can’t write more than that, because the novel is so dense and intricate (and at the same time so easy to read) that everything one writes about it can turn out to be a spoiler. But take it easy, readers: I barely touched the surface of the book. There’s so much more than the first 60 pages I described—after all, the novel has approximately 470 pages, and many a thing will happen that you won’t be expecting.

The Knife of Never Letting Go” is also reminiscent of the classic
Philip Wylie duology about the end of the world, When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide. More so of the second novel, which features as its bottom line the following question: What happens when you arrive at a new world to colonize it and everything goes wrong?

In conclusion, I finished “The Knife of Never Letting Go” eager to know what happens next. And since this is the first book of a trilogy, we’ve only skimmed the surface of the story and have so much territory to cover yet in the following two novels…

Bonus Q&A with Patrick Ness:

Q: Upon reading “The Knife of Never Letting Go”, I couldn’t help but think of the many authors who wrote stories featuring teens but were in fact talking to a wider audience, such as Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. Did any of these writers influence you in any way?

Patrick: Not as such. I always say when I'm teaching that the only success I've ever had (and this is 100% true) is when I've written entirely for myself. That is, wrote a book that I would kill to read myself, so in that sense I'm only ever writing for an audience of one. What I find happens is that when I'm really enjoying the story I'm telling myself, that joy sticks to the page in ways you can't see but ways a reader will pick up on and like. So I try to avoid thinking about my “audience” as much as I can, because then I start getting bogged down in what I “should” say rather than what I want to say, then the story suffers and you end up not saying very much at all.

Q: Despite avoidance of profanity (Todd Hewitt uses the word “effing” all the time), the violence to which he is exposed in the story is truly moving—and, sometimes (as in the case of the impossible-to-kill Aaron) bloodcurdling. Can we really see Chaos Walking as a YA series?

Patrick: I think so, though adults have seemed to respond to it very well, which is nice. But yes, a YA series because I think teenagers are pretty tough. It's HARD being a teenager, and they're very articulate and thoughtful about the difficulties in the stuff they write themselves. So I think my main goal is to treat them with as much respect as I can and not pull any punches in the story. Having said that, there's another extreme you can go to where—when you're trying to be “real” for teenage readers—you end up writing only misery, as if that's more truthful than writing only happiness. I tried to tell a tough story truthfully without insulting a teenage reader who would know if I was sugar-coating, but then I also tried to show that even in tough times, there really are opportunities for connection with other people, for humour, for happiness, all those good things. And how much more real do those things seem if you've already been honest about the tough stuff? I've had a great response from teenagers (particularly, interestingly enough, Irish and Australian teens), and I think it's a YA series. If adults like it, too, that's a really pleasing bonus.

Q: Todd Hewitt faces a true rite of passage all over the story—and that’s just Volume One! What can we expect for the next books of the series?

Patrick: Oh, that would be telling! What I can say is that book two is finished and called “The Ask and the Answer” and will be out next year. In thematic terms, though, things do shift gears for the next two books (I'd always planned it as a trilogy); they're about different aspects of what Todd has to face and how he deals with it all. So, lots more to come! But I'm not giving any secrets away...

Q: What are your literary influences?

Patrick: The author I admire most is
Peter Carey, who I think is amazing, particularly in how his books seem to be just a smaller slice of a larger imagined world. I love that, the way you can pick up all kinds of richness in his books just by inference, so I'm huge fan of that. I also love an English writer called Nicola Barker, who takes enormous risks with language and style, but still manages to be readable and tremendous good fun. I suppose I like people who aren't afraid to be bold, though not just for the sake of itself. That's what I aim for, boldness but with a purpose. It's risky, because you can fall on your face pretty easily, but the rewards can be equally great.

Q: “The Knife of Never Letting Go” can be read as a libel against intolerance. Is there an underlying message that you wanted to communicate to the readers?

Patrick: I try not to write with a message in mind, because try as you might, you always end up preaching and who wants that? But I also think that any writer responds to a story for a reason, so that story is going to contain messages whether you like it or not. The one that I really like, and what's probably most important to me in “The Knife of Never Letting Go”, is one of connection. Through Viola, Todd finally finds someone he can really trust, someone he has to learn about and get to know and rely on. It ends up, I hope, being so much more than a usual love story; it feels meatier and harder and deeper and therefore all the more valuable between them, and that's where I think the hope in the book lies, in the way that Todd and Viola really learn to see each other, warts and all, and still accept the other and come to depend on them. That's what I like, true connection, and that's where I think our hope as a species lies.

Q: Lastly, congratulations on winning the
2008 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. How do you feel about it?

Patrick: Winning the Prize was fantastic! It's one of the only prizes judged exclusively by other authors, so it's people who really understand what you're trying to do. And it's been great for the book in terms of raising its profile and getting more people to read it, which is what every author wants, after all.


SciFiGuy said...

LOL Frank Cottrell Boyce needs to read more if that opening sentence is one of the best he has ever read. That aside this sounds like a marvelous read. You had me hooked with the comparison to Wylie.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great read. (and Mr Ness looks just like I imagined he would, by the sound of his name LOL)
I don't know what it is about this kind of book that is so compelling to me.
I guess I will just have to read this to find out ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hi, SciFiGuy!

Maybe Boyce exaggerated a bit, but let me assure you that The Knife... makes an excellent reading. And the Wylie comparison goes all the way - I can hardly wait for the sequels.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Cheryl, I felt exactly the same (I just read your review, BTW, and I must agree with you).

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