Monday, February 24, 2014

"The Knife of Never Letting Go," by Patrick Ness

The Protagonist: Todd Prewitt. A boy on the verge of manhood, he lives in an all-male settlement where everyone's thoughts are audible to everyone else, an endless Noise.
His Angst: When Todd finds an unexpected spot of quiet in the Noise - and discovers that spot corresponds with a person, a girl, he and the mysterious female are forced to flee every truth he's ever known.

The Other Protagonist: Viola. A space colonist orphaned in a crash-landing, she discovers the new planet and its settlers aren't the paradise she expected.
Her Angst: Her gender and her immigrant status make her a target for the same people hunting Todd.

Angst Checklist:
  • Frontier Life
  • Misogyny
  • Poo, Todd
  • Privacy
  • Morality
  • Gender Relations
  • Religion
  • Murder
The Word: I'm usually a literal reader. I expect plots to make objective sense and I prefer characters who act in believable human ways, rather than as puppets for some larger artistic message or theme. It's the reason I've never really enjoyed Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon, where the characters are more symbolic than tangible.

However, I really enjoyed The Knife of Never Letting Go, despite the fact that the core concept of the series is blatantly implausible and the story is a minefield of plot holes. When read literally.

When read allegorically, however, it's a fascinating character study with truly empathetic characters, breakneck pacing, and satisfying tension. A bit like Pilgrim's Progress in space.

Todd Prewitt lives in a cursed, dreary hamlet known as Prentisstown. A long time ago, aliens known as Spackles dropped a germ on the human settlers that killed all the women and forced every man's thoughts out into the open. Every man's thoughts became audible to everyone else, coalescing into a constant, cacophonous Noise that the miserable inhabitants of Prentisstown have had to live with all this time.

However, while walking his dog, Manchee (whose thoughts are also audible - he's bit like Dug from Up), Todd comes across a spot of complete silence - an island of quiet in the sea of Noise. When his adoptive parents, Ben and Cillian, read his discovery in his thoughts, the horrified pair pack him a bag and order him to flee Prentisstown before it's too late.

Prentisstown, it appears, has managed to hide a fair number of dangerous secrets despite the open book of everyone's thoughts and Todd's discovery of the Quiet makes him a target for Prentisstown's sinister mayor, Prentiss, as well as Aaron, Prentisstown's insane preacher. Todd discovers one of these secrets when he tracks down the Quiet and discovers it's a person. A girl. A girl whose thoughts he can't read at all. Todd and the girl, Viola, race towards Haven - a larger settlement that promises safety - all the while learning just how much history the men of Prentisstown have rewritten for their own benefit.

The Knife of Never Letting Go paints a fascinating picture of what it would be like to have absolutely no privacy, and how that affects and distorts personal morality. Being able to hear everyone's thoughts with no way to turn them off. Scratch that - to be able to hear all men's thoughts. As Todd and Viola discover - women don't produce Noise. Todd and Viola soon encounter other settlements whose inhabitants have come up with different ways to deal with the Noise and this new difference between men and women. The novel gallops along at an addictive, breakneck clip, using Todd's stream-of-consciousness narration to pull you deeper into the story.

And Todd is such an empathetic character. He's believed everything he's been told, he's been force-fed a certain idea of right and wrong, and then suddenly he's set adrift and has to make those decisions for himself. We, the reader, are put in the same position as Viola. We get to "read" all of his thoughts, all of his questions and observations about the world. As readers, we're used to this level of intimacy with a protagonist's thoughts, but when framed by the concept that every other character in the novel experiences this as well, it brings home how terrifying and bizarre it would really be to have complete access to another person's mind.

While talking about this during the February meeting of the Forever Young Adult Book Club, my FYA friend Mandy pointed out how the novel serves as a cunning metaphor for the age of social media. So many people are willing to spill every detail of their lives on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Vine, even when these instances of TMI can come back to haunt them years later. And as more and more interactions take place online, it's grown increasingly difficult for people to keep secrets in the electronic age, particularly if they're a prominent or famous person.

That being said, the novel's not perfect. There are lots of plot holes - there's really no explanation for how Todd never heard the town's secrets in their Noise over the years. As well, the novel's main antagonist, preacher Aaron, is a superficially evil whack-a-mole villain with zero motivation who pops up at random moments to move the plot.

But damn if I don't want to keep reading and find out what happens next!

Sunday, February 09, 2014

"Empire of Ivory," by Naomi Novik

The Protagonists:

Will Laurence: Captain of Temeraire - he's horrified to return to England to discover all of its dragons are sick or dying - and hopes the same doesn't happen to Temeraire.

Temeraire: Will's dragon, whose dreams of introducing freedom of expression to his scaled compatriots has to take a backseat to helping them recover from the mysterious illness.

Secondary Cast:

Admiral Jane Rowland: Leader of the aerial corps (and Laurence's companion-with-benefits), she's run ragged both by the dragons' health crisis and the effort needed to keep it a secret from Napoleon.

Mrs. Erasmus: The wife of a freedman preacher who travels with Laurence and Temeraire to Africa in order to spread the gospel - and winds up reuniting with the tribe she was kidnapped from.

Kefentse: A wrathful African dragon whose tribe was kidnapped by slavers who seeks vengeance on the white invaders.

The Plot: In this fourth entry in Naomi Novik's endlessly detailed and inventive historical fantasy series about dragons in the Napoleonic wars (here are books one, two, and three, Laurence and Temeraire return to England after fleeing France at the end of Black Powder War.  Upon landing, they discover why England failed to send the twenty dragons promised to the Continental war effort: England has no dragons to send.

A horrific plague has struck England's dragons (in a nice ironic twist, brought over on a Native American dragon from the New World), and they are dying by slow inches with no hope of recovery. Jane Rowland - now Admiral Rowland - is desperately trying to keep this information under wraps. Should knowledge of the plague reach France, Napoleon would not hesitate to launch a full-scale invasion.

Upon discovering that Temeraire is immune to the disease thanks to some medicine he received in the previous novel for what was thought to be a head cold, Laurence and Temeraire are ordered (along with six other valuable sick dragons) to set sail for Africa (where the medicine was made) to see if they can discover and reproduce a cure.

Much like the previous books in the series, Empire of Ivory has an over-arcing plot, but it approaches it with a series of amusing and detailed episodic scenes. This makes for a slower read than might be expected, but the levels of detail and social commentary more than make up for it. I have yet to encounter a novel with a more thorough worldbuliding than this one.

Inevitably, due to the book's major setting (coastal and interior Africa), the issue of slavery is an important theme in the novel. Laurence is devotedly anti-slavery, but England has not officially abolished it yet - and the politics, bureaucracies, and red tape involved in abolishing it are not easily explained to the more literal-minded British dragons - or to the extremely angry and vengeful African dragons they run into during their explorations.

Although the fantasy element of Novik's books is wonderful and scrupulously developed and explained, I love how she uses the relationship between humans and dragons to explore the social context of Napoleonic England - the use of women in warfare, the treatment of unwed mothers, the strained relationship between oblivious politicians and actual soldiers, and of course - the legality and politics of slavery. Laurence is an exceedingly decent chap - but he is the gentlemanly son of a peer, and he is constantly having to learn and adapt and rethink his priorities thanks to his discussions with Temeraire and the other members of the aerial corps.

That being said, it is a slow-moving, episodic book, but by now I'm pretty much used to it. I love the worldbuilding, I love the historical detail, I love the language - and I love Laurence and Temeraire.