YA Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking #1)

Title: The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking #1)
Author: Patrick Ness
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 3/5

I like Patrick Ness. I enjoyed And the Ocean was our Sky for its ideas and gorgeous imagery, and I loved A Monster Calls for its effective exploration of real-world grief through the framework of a fairy tale. And as I’m writing YA dystopia, I thought I should take a look at his Chaos Walking trilogy. I picked up Book 1, The Knife of Never Letting Go, with high expectations, but they weren’t entirely met.

The story is built on big ideas, expressed and explained at the level of the characters. The reader is thrown into the setting and the scenario in the first sentence, and the first-person narration makes it easy to understand and accept the ideas, and move on with the story. It’s hard to grab your readers and immerse them in your fiction so quickly, and Patrick Ness is almost too successful, sacrificing a sense of wonder in order to make the big ideas feel mundane and ordinary.

On a colony planet, Todd is the last boy in a town of men, with thirty days left until his coming of age. The women died during a war with the indigenous population, and Prentisstown is the last settlement on New World. For the men, the war brought the Noise – an infection that broadcasts their thoughts, so everyone in town can hear what their neighbours are thinking. Todd knows there will be a ceremony to mark his birthday, but even his foster parents have been masking all references to the plans in their thoughts, so he doesn’t know what to expect. When we first meet Todd, he’s walking out of the settlement with his talking dog, relieved to be spending time away from the Noise.

That’s a lot of big ideas, all introduced through Todd’s narration, and all of it feels completely normal by the end of the first chapter. It’s an amazing achievement, to make the reader believe all these impossible things within 16 pages, but it comes at a cost. I wanted to feel a sense of wonder at the Noise, and at Todd’s relationship with a dog who could talk and share his thoughts. I wanted to feel a sense of displacement on an alien world, or some sense from the narrator that there might be more to life than farming and running errands for his family.

But that’s not the point. The point is to put you in Todd’s shoes, so that what happens next is more shocking and surprising. When Todd and his dog are forced to run from Prentisstown, he begins to understand his place in a wider world, and to unravel the truth about his home from the lies he’s been told.

It’s a good story, with a cliffhanger at the end that made me pick up Book 2, even though I didn’t feel completely invested in the characters and the dangers they face. I sympathised with Todd, and I cared about what happened to him, but I didn’t connect with him as deeply as I wanted to. Many of the descriptions of locations and landscapes feel gorgeously cinematic, but at the same time the emotions and reactions of the characters feel frustratingly pared back and tightly controlled.

I’m interested to see where the trilogy takes the story, and to discover the truth behind the lies and half-truths Todd has been told. I like the world that Patrick Ness has created, and I like the big ideas he’s managed to slip so convincingly into the narrative. I just wish I could feel more wonder, more empathy, more fear, and more anger, as I share Todd’s experiences on his journey.

Have you read The Knife of Never Letting Go? Did you fall in love with Todd and his world, or did you feel disconnected? Were you ready to pick up Book 2 at the end? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.

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