After discovering my love of dystopian fiction, my English teacher gave me two books: “1984” and “The Knife of Never Letting Go.” Both of these books are among the hardest I have ever had to read. I have yet to finish 1984, simply because of the complex writing and its unfortunately infuriatingly relevant content.
However, I finished “The Knife of Never Letting Go” reasonably quickly for a book of its size. It was easy for me because it was captivating, and I really liked the characters and the unique world in which the book is set. My mother, equally enthralled, bought the entire trilogy, and I was able to return the book to my teacher.
Now, these books are good. Most people who read them, myself included, like them. Their syntax is incredibly unique, their characters are fun and likable for the most part, and the book creates this incredible world that is so different from our own. These books are shining examples of post-apocalyptic fiction, and for someone who likes the “Hunger Games” and (the first) “Divergent,” these books were right up my alley.
I could highly recommend the “Chaos Walking” trilogy to anyone like me who loves seeing the world rebuilt after it ends. But, I don’t recommend them, and there is a reason that despite having started this trilogy at the beginning of September, I only just finished them. I have a lot of trouble reading these books, especially the ones after the first. They are infuriating.
Books that make the reader angry are often hard to read, at least for me. These books, in a way that I’m sure, are intentional, push my buttons so hard when I try and read them. For you see, these books aren’t just about two children trying to make it in a world that is being rapidly taken over by a crazy despot. The last two editions of the series deal with, interestingly enough for the setting, a gender war.
Let’s take a step back.
In the first book, the protagonist Todd lives on a distant world with these two guys, who are basically his two adopted dads, in a city that is entirely composed of men. The women supposedly got an illness and died when humans landed on the new world, so it’s just the guys now.
More interestingly, all the people of Todd’s village have something called Noise, which is an audible manifestation of your thoughts. Everyone can see and hear what you’re thinking all the time unless you become good at masking your Noise, which Todd is really bad at. He’s an open book, which is ironic since he can’t read, a minor plot point for later.
So a few days before his birthday, Todd comes home from working in the fields to find his dads waiting for him with a packed bag. They tell him, somewhat out of the blue, that he needs to take off into the woods and never come back. This makes sense to the reader because Todd had been thinking to himself about how there is an unknown ritual that all the boys in town perform on their thirteenth birthday, and after that, they are never the same.
But Todd, who continues this trend of being somewhat oblivious to obvious danger throughout the series, doesn’t understand what’s going on. Long story short, he gets kicked out of the house with his bag right as his house gets blown up, presumably killing his dads. That’s when Todd decides running is in his best interest.
He hightails it to the forest, where he finds a strangely new wreckage of a spaceship and a couple of bodies. Todd is not sure why until he comes across the one thing he thought he would never see: a girl. And, to surprise him more, she has no Noise.
He’s never met anyone who didn’t have Noise, not even animals, so he’s confused but invites her to come with him on his adventure because she has a box that makes fire. Thus, friendship is born.
Todd and the girl, who we learn is named Viola when she talks for the first time halfway through the book, get to be excellent friends through shared experiences of almost dying numerous times. Throughout the book, they are chased by this insane preacher named Aaron, who nearly kills them a bunch of times before Viola stabs him and shoves him off a cliff with Todd’s titular “Knife of Never Letting Go.”
You learn to both like but feel really sorry for Viola. Those bodies from the ship were her parents, and she almost joins them in the afterlife several times throughout the trilogy. She nearly dies at least twice in every book, not to mention the shooting, torture, drowning and infection that she has to deal with between the different instances of almost dying.
At the end of the first book, Todd gets captured by the crazy mayor of his old village. Todd then learns that this crazy mayor had all the women of his village killed out of jealousy because women don’t have any noise and men do.
Additionally, there are still lots of other women on the planet because there never was a disease that killed them. Their demise in Todd’s village was the fault of a dictator who seized control after the previous mayor, a woman, was killed in the massacre.
You learn to really hate this guy, who is referred to as The Mayor throughout all the books even after he takes over the whole planet and starts calling himself The President. This guy is the literal most annoying antagonist I’ve ever encountered in a young adult novel.
In the second book, while recovering from being almost killed a lot of times, Viola is abducted by the Resistance to The Mayor. The Resistance is practically all women, which matches The Mayor’s army of entire men since he doesn’t want people whom he can’t read in his army.
The Resistance, calling themselves The Answer, is led by a woman named Mistress Coyle. She, in contrast to the fake-nice evilness of The Mayor, is pretty mean, morally ambiguous, and has a serious take-no-prisoners attitude. This is ironic since she liberates prison camps, literally taking all of the prisoners, but I digress. She’s the anti-Mayor, and I like that because I hate him so much. Yet, as time goes on and Viola spends more time with the Resistance, she realizes that Coyle is actually just as bad as The Mayor is, only she doesn’t try to hide it and performs evil in the pursuit of good instead of for personal gain.
The Answer is placing bombs all over Haven, the capital of the planet. The Mayor captured the town in the first book and uses it as his hub for the remainder of the series. These bombs are killing semi-innocent bystanders in the process. Most of these are men, who in this book are usually pretty evil if they aren’t Todd or working with The Answer.
The entire theme of the second book is that men suck, but women are only a little better because they are smarter about their senseless murder, planting bombs instead of shooting everything in sight. Coyle knows what she is doing and that it is wrong. She’s very open about doing the wrong thing for the right reason, even acknowledging it is the wrong thing multiple times. But, she still believes she is better than The Mayor, even if their body count is about equal because she is trying to free the planet while he is enslaving it. It’s a slippery slope trying to decide if they are both equally evil, so I’ll leave that up to you.
The third book is really complicated, but basically, the Spackle, a race of aliens who were already living on the planet when humans arrived and subsequently killed most of them, decide this is their moment to rise up and take their world back. So the Answer’s female army of healers and The Mayor’s male army of soldiers have to stop trying to kill each other and work together to start killing the Spackle instead.
Under this full-scale war is a smaller war that takes place between Mistress Coyle and The Mayor as they attempt to outdo each other in taking credit for their success in the fight against the Spackle. Coyle tries to split credit while The Mayor insists on all-or-nothing, and this is one more character trait of his that I really hate.
As the book progresses, it turns out that the Spackle are really peaceful people who are only destroying humans, who they call The Clearing, because so many of them had been killed when the humans arrived and started clearing (get it?) the planet. They also call themselves The Land, and since I don’t like to appropriate even fictional culture, I’ll be calling them that from now on.
There is, however, this one member of The Land who is called The Return. He, for complicated in-narrative reasons, hates humans more than everybody else and is obsessed with getting revenge on Todd because Todd saved his life. It’s weird, but The Return eventually finds peace and becomes part of The Land again, shedding his name and rejoining his people. It’s nice.
So, in the end, Viola ends up not dying from the infection that has been slowly killing her for two and a half books, and The Mayor takes full credit for saving her life after having tried to kill her at least four times. Todd and Viola reunite since, after being captured by and then working for opposing forces, since they had spent the last two books working for the men and the women, respectively. A tentative peace between everyone is achieved right as the rest of Viola’s people arrive on the planet.
These books have excellent writing, they are captivating, and the story is one that can be applied to real life, even though it is set in a completely different world. So, it’s been almost 2000 words, and you’re likely wondering what my issue with these books is if I like them so much.
This trilogy’s antagonist is The Mayor, who is a strangely realistic figure. He is toxic masculinity personified and his fake-niceness is so condescending, I want to become a part of this book and slap him. He feels like a real person, and I’ve thrown these books across the room, and straight-up quit them so many times that I can’t honestly recommend them to anyone. I wouldn’t wish The Mayor on my worst enemy, who, whenever I read these books, happens to be The Mayor.
It’s a fascinating concept, the pitting of The Mayor as the Charismatic Evil Leader versus Mistress Coyle as the Straightforward Morally-Ambiguous leader. In the end, Coyle never receives the cult-like following The Mayor has and you have to wonder if it is because she’s a woman, and they’re supposed to be sweet and pleasant for people to like them.
The concepts in these books are fascinating and complex.
The first one deals with murder versus self-defense. The second one explores gender roles and how far “well-meaning” can take you before it becomes straight evil. The third ponders not only the relationship between native people and colonizers but also the responsibility for both war and peace. This is the most complex if the least interesting to me personally.
What side can be blamed for the war; the one that started it or the one that killed the most people? Can a current generation be held responsible for a genocide committed by their ancestors?
These books raise a lot of real questions we should be asking ourselves, and it manages to do this in a completely out of this world setting.
So, if you’re okay with putting a dent in your wall while reading these books and stomping around yelling about the audacity of a fictional villain (or if you just have thicker skin then me), then these would make a nice quarantine read. Otherwise, don’t subject yourself. You were warned.