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Storytelling doesn't get any better than this
on 27 October 2010
Story-telling doesn't get any better than this. I defy anyone to start "The Knife of Never Letting Go", the first book in the "Chaos Walking" trilogy, and not follow it through to the conclusion of "Monsters of Men", the third.
Ness' universe has been thought through in intricate detail, his imagining of his other world the best I have read since Tolkien forty years ago. The plot is complex, multi-layered and ever-shifting, but it is brought to a terrific conclusion. The storyline seduces and deceives all the time: just when you think it is going one way, another twist is in store. The intriguing use of different fonts for different narrators, and especially for the excellent device of the "noise", works very well indeed. (Looking for an insight into the mind of man's best friend? Manchee is the best talking dog in fiction.)
There are cliff-hangers a-plenty, but the author has a lot of plot up his sleeve. He does not let up, and he doesn't pull his punches. As well as love and courage and integrity in this trilogy, there are death and torture and betrayal. This is particularly true of Book Two ("The Ask and The Answer") where deception, betrayal and duplicity constantly wrong-foot the reader. Throughout, there are some stunningly well-written characters, particularly the unhinged Mayor Prentiss, some of whose deeds could have come from the more sadistic pages of Cormac McCarthy. "... the desire of most folks is to be told what to do," he says, in the all too reasonable tones of an off-world Stalin. "People say they want freedom, but what they really want is freedom from worry. If I take care of their problems, they don't mind being told what to do." (Pretensions towards dictatorship and looking for a psychopathic role model? The Mayor is your man.)
Descriptions of action in fiction can sometimes get bogged down in detail. Not so here. Whether describing the tense waterfall fight with Aaron in Book One or the war that follows, Ness' use of simple, single-line - sometimes single-word - paragraphs generates an excitement that will have you whipping breathlessly through the pages. This style is not an affectation - it is used very effectively indeed. Despite the simple language and the cliff-hangers that make it difficult to put these books aside, Ness is able to engage the reader in profound moral dilemmas. Are my enemy's enemies truly my friends and, if so, what compromises should we accept to form an alliance? To what extent should the many be saved at the expense of the few? Even...might the Mayor be right?
There is no point in just buying the first one of this trilogy. Buy the complete set right at the beginning. You'll want them, and you won't want to wait for the post.