The Knife of Never Letting Go

You know those books that grab you by the heart and squeeze it? The kind that make you race through the pages, lost in the story? And then they smash your heart and jump on the pieces? And you're only a third of a way through the story so they have plenty of opportunities to do it again and again? I just finished books one and two of the Chaos Walking trilogy and that's pretty much been my experience.

The first book in this trilogy by Patrick Ness is The Knife of Never Letting Go. It starts with a very grumpy young man and his dog going out to the swamps to fetch swamp apples (don't those sound awful?). Todd is grumpy about everything. He is counting down the days to his birthday; which in his culture makes him a man. He thinks he's too old for a dumb task like collecting apples and he resents his dog Manchee, a pet he did not want that he considers a burden. Manchee is particularly annoying because he can speak, so is almost impossible to ignore. When we first meet him he's bugging Todd because he needs to poo.

While Todd and Manchee are in the swamp, avoiding the creatures that infest the place, Todd experiences something he's never encountered before: silence. The two mooned planet on which Todd lives has something the inhabitants call Noise. It's essentially the thoughts of every animal on the planet, swirling together and overloading the brains of the humans who live there. The birds talk, mostly about refuge and food, the sheep have really only one thought, the horses worry about their position in the herd, the swamp creatures obsess about hunting and the men of Todd's village think scary thoughts filled with rage and sadness. When Todd encounters the mysterious silence he goes back to the farm where he lives with his adoptive fathers and gets a big shock, which kicks him into a completely different life.

The virus that caused the Noise also killed off all the women of Todd's world. Imagine growing up in the society of angry men, knowing that you are the last child, that no-one will be born after you. You are the future and the end of the world all in one and you're about to become a man, which means there will be no more children ever. No wonder he's so grumpy and super stressed out.

When Ben and Cillian, Todd's adoptive fathers, find out that he has encountered the silence in the swamp they rush him out of the house and tell him he has to run away and never come back. As they try to get him on the way the house comes under attack from the villagers and an incredibly confused and frightened Todd and Manchee start what becomes a protracted chase scene.

I probably don't need to say that the story in compelling and will make you zip through the pages. From the very first sentence you’re dying to know what's going to happen next, even though there isn't much going on. Here is the opening:

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."
"Poo. Poo, Todd."
"I said shut it."

Yes, the book is written in dialect and Todd is not terribly educated (books were the next thing to go after the women all died) but it's not difficult to read as so many books in dialect are. I'm trying awfully hard not to give away any surprises in this book, but I also want to talk about how terrific a character is. So I'll just say that you should love the source of the silence as much as I do. The source is brave, clever and tough, as is Todd, who put me off a little at first by being mean to Manchee. (Who I loved with all my heart.) But as I said, Todd is dealing with an awful lot and just gets more and more heaped on his plate throughout the story.

The series deals with some heavy and intense issues, like misogyny, genocide, manipulation on a grand scale, eradication of native species and some of the ways that ordinary people end up doing terrible things. The first book won the Booktrust Teenage Prize, the Guardian Award, the Tiptree Award and was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and the Manchester Book Award.

This trilogy is a trilogy more in the sense of Lord of the Rings than The Hunger Games. Each book of the Hunger Games was a complete story, with an ending. But the Chaos Walking trilogy is more LOTR in that each book just kind of ends. I remember when Tad Williams was working on his masterpiece Otherland he said he would try not to end a book in the middle of a sentence. Patrick Ness doesn't do that with the Chaos Walking books but you should definitely have all three books ready to go when you start the first one. Otherwise you will be one unhappy puppy.

You can read a longer excerpt here:

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is a video of a speed drawing of an artist's conception of Manchee, Todd's dog in the Knife of Never Letting Go. He isn't quite the way I imagined him but this is a lovely piece of fan art from Ellie Hawes.