Please note that this review may contain spoilers for its prequel, The Knife of Never Letting Go. You can read my review of this novel [here].
The Ask and the Answer was written by Patrick Ness and first published in 2009. The novel follows on from exactly where The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008) left off and so you really need to read the series in order to have any idea of what is going on. The Ask and the Answer was awarded the 2009 Costa Children’s Book Award and is followed by Monsters of Men (2010).
Todd came to Haven in search of a cure but has found only more suffering. Mayor Prentiss has managed to take control of the city in a bloodless coup and renamed it New Prentisstown, appointing himself as its sole ruler. Todd finds himself immediately separated from the critically wounded Viola and forced to work alongside his enemies. The only hope he has to cling to is the Mayor’s promise that she will be safe as long as Todd remains obedient.
Meanwhile, Viola wakes up in clinic staffed entirely by women and quickly learns that Haven was not the utopia that it seemed to be. Although the women did not meet the fate of those in Prentisstown, they were still always viewed as second class citizens. Things seem bleaker still as Mayor Prentiss’s men begins to round up the women, passing strict laws regarding when they can be seen in public.
Yet not everyone is eager to subscribe to the Mayor’s new world order. A resistance movement known as the Answer appear in the night, planting bombs in public places in order to disrupt the regime, and a lone Spackle slave begins to plot his violent revenge against those who have wronged him…
I think I should probably begin this review with a warning. This book is dark. I’ve said this about a lot of novels before but never has been so true. The plot of The Ask and the Answer is unrelentingly bleak, filled with violence and torture. The graphic depictions of these acts are absolutely horrible to read and I did have to put the book down a couple of times because it was a little too much for even me. This is certainly a book that’s aimed at older teens and, even then, if you’re in any way squeamish I’d advise giving this one a miss. It is a very powerful novel and the events that happen within it are likely to stay with you a long time.
In this respect, the story is unbelievably effective. It is one of the most most engrossing novels about war that I have ever read due to the fact that the atrocities are shown from both sides. By placing Viola and Todd on opposing sides of a civil war, Ness forces the reader to remain neutral. The Ask and the Answer is a novel filled with shades of grey. Although Mayor Prentiss is still undeniably evil, the actions of the Answer are also morally dubious.
Mayor Prentiss behaves like a classic fascist dictator. He’s the excellent sort of villain who always believes himself to be the story’s hero, making the hard decisions to ensure that society works better. On the surface, he seems benevolent – temporarily taking things away from men (the cure, women etc.) on the understanding he will gradually introduce them back as their city grows stronger and more organised. Naturally, his kindly façade hides a regime of terror. People who do not conform are imprisoned and those who are free turn a blind eye to the neglect and torture these unfortunates endure because they know that if they speak against it, they’ll be next.
Yet on the other side of the coin is the Answer. At first, I really wanted to get behind the Answer because they stood for everything that Mayor Prentiss did not. They were the noble rebels, forming out of a necessity to topple the tyrant. However, as the story progressed, it forced the reader to question whether the lengths that they go to are really worth it. The Answer shows little concern for the individual, focusing so intently on winning their war that no single life has any meaning to them. This includes innocent bystanders and even unwitting members of their own army. While their end goal seems honourable, there’s the constant worry that Mistress Coyle would become an even bigger tyrant than Mayor Prentiss if she regained control of the city.
The ethical issues are what really makes the plot gripping. While The Ask and the Answer is a surprisingly easy read, it forces you to confront many over-arching themes. Many of these carry over from the first novel, such as the rights of women, the dangers of indoctrination and what it really means to be a man, but The Ask and the Answer also throws a few more into the mix. The novel forces its reader to consider whether or not the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, if a monster can ever find redemption and if a person is morally culpable if he turns a blind eye to injustice. In this way it is very effective as it pushes the reader to form a decision about these difficult themes without ever spoon-feeding answers to them.
Yet the story just didn’t seem as engaging as The Knife of Never Letting Go. I think it was something to do with the structure of this novel. The first book was always moving. Todd and Viola were on a journey together, constantly learning new things about the world and uncovering the deeper mystery of what happened to the women of Prentisstown as they fled from the Mayor and Aaron. The Ask and the Answer just didn’t have the same kinetic energy. All of the action took place in Haven / New Prentisstown and at times, the novel seemed to slow down. It wasn’t that it was boring (events are always escalating, tension tightening like a violin string) but the same events happened over and over again. There are several chapters where Todd is working in the fields with the Spackle and several more where Viola is healing people. Overall, this was perhaps just a little too repetitive.
I also didn’t think the sudden flips in viewpoint were all that effective. After a while, the narrative voice in the chapters starts to alternate between Todd and Viola (sometimes flipping multiple times in a chapter). I don’t think it’s ever really that effective to show the same events over and over from a different perspective. Added to this was the small problem of the fact that Viola and Todd have started speaking with very similar voices. Todd’s phonetic pronunciations are toned down a lot more in this book while Viola doesn’t seem to be quite as eloquent as she was in the previous novel. This confused me on a couple of occasions as I entirely forgot who was supposed to be narrating!
I also found it a lot harder to like the protagonists of this story as both of them do things within this story that are not especially nice. I won’t spoil the events of the book for you here but needless to say that Todd in particular is now very different from the naive boy that he was at the start of the series. While he does ultimately begin to redeem himself towards the end of the story, his actions within the novel up to this point are truly grotesque and difficult to justify. I did, however, really enjoy the development of his relationship with Davy – the bully who shot Viola in The Knife of Never Letting Go. Although the two have an understandable rocky start, the way that Davy gradually begins to look up to Todd and change for the better is truly moving.
On the other hand, I do still really adore Viola. Throughout the story, she is strong, resilient and determined. I love how she remains so staunchly loyal to Todd through the story, doing everything in her power to guarantee his safety at all times and always able to stand up to authority figures – even ones as power as the Mayor – when she knows that they’re wrong. The only thing that disappointed me about her character development was the fact that her time with the Answer was so fragmented. For example, we only see her friendship with Lee developing in tiny vignettes, sometimes only lasting for a couple of paragraphs at a time. This in turn makes it difficult to fully appreciate why he has fallen for her. As so much time was devoted to showing Todd’s every movement in detail, it would have been nice to have seen more of Viola’s training with the Answer.
Sorry, this review is running long so I’ll wrap it up. The Ask and the Answer wasn’t as good as it’s prequel but it’s still a powerful and deeply emotional novel in its own right. While it’s a very dark story, it forces the reader to confront many difficult ethical questions. The cast are still incredibly memorable and it has a well-rounded villain who is nothing short of terrifying. I’m still very much enjoying this series and I can’t wait to see how it concludes in Monsters of Men.
The Ask and the Answer can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk