The Ask and The Answer
“We were in the square, in the square where I'd run, holding her, carrying her, telling her to stay alive, stay alive till we got safe, till we got to Haven so I could save her - But there weren't no safety, no safety at all, there was just him and his men...Fleeing before a relentless army, Todd has carried a desperately wounded Viola right into the hands of their worst enemy, Mayor Prentiss. Immediately separated from Viola and imprisoned, Todd is forced to learn the ways of the Mayor's new order. But what secrets are hiding just outside of town? And where is Viola? Is she even still alive? And who are the mysterious Answer? And then, one day, the bombs begin to explode..."The Ask and the Answer" is a tense, shocking and deeply moving novel of resistance under the most extreme pressure.”
(Blurb courtesy of Goodreads)
I loved the first book in this series, The Knife of Never Letting Go (see my review here) and wasn't entirely sure that a second book would work or be able to match the level of writing seen in book one. I am glad to say that I was wrong on both counts. The Ask and The Answer actually surpasses its predecessor in sheer beauty, horror and vision.
Patrick Ness has moved from the singular voice of Todd to a duel narrative structure. This could easily have gone awry (Todd very much carried the first book and his distinctive style of speech and often erratic thought processes were vital to the story's success) but in fact works exceptionally well. It not only allows us to get to know some characters better but also expands the world they inhabit to include several newcomers.
As in The Knife of Never Letting Go, the character development was incredibly effective. At the start of the book, Todd declares himself a man and, by the end, he truly has become one. It is not an easy journey that he makes and at times his actions are abhorrent, but it is testament to the strength of this character that at no point did I dislike him. He is one of the most vivid characters I can ever remember reading about and is firmly stuck in my mind as a great literary creation.
The style of writing continues to delight and destroy – seamlessly combining moments of great tenderness, forgiveness and love with scenes of quiet horror and catastrophic inhumanity. The way in which the characters inner thoughts are written, often in a disjointed stream of consciousness, refuses to allow you any distance from their emotions. Within two pages, I was so distressed on Todd's behalf that I burst into tears – I have honestly never been affected by reading in quite so visceral and instant a manner.
Above all, The Ask and The Answer is a novel about war, both within our characters as individuals and between rising forces on a grander scale. It illustrates beautifully and horrifically the shades of grey in which all conflict is steeped. It is also a novel about love, trust, friendship, how the choices that we make define us and the dangers of pushing good men to their limit. An absolute must read.