This book is another difficult one to review and so apologies if this post is a little shorter than normal. More Than This was written by Patrick Ness and first published in 2013. It’s a philosophical science fiction story about a teenage boy who awakes to find himself in an abandoned town. The novel stands alone and so you don’t have to have read any of Ness’s other novels to fully appreciate it.
Seth remembers drowning: the icy chill of the water and the sensation of his bones breaking as he smashes against the rocks. Yet he somehow doesn’t die. He wakes up in an abandoned English town which he soon recognises as the place where his family lived before moving to America. As he explores the barren streets, he’s forced to relive the worst memories of his childhood. Most specifically, the time a terrible incident befell his brother. One that was entirely Seth’s fault.
Seth also starts to remember the incidents that led up to his death: his romance with another boy, the unexpected outing of his sexuality, and how these events alienated him from his closest friends. He starts to wonder if the town is actually Hell, existing to make him relive the lowest points of his life over and over for all time.
However, he soon starts to realise that may not be the case at all. He is not the only person roaming the wasteland. There are other teenagers who have woken up to find themselves in that lonely world and they are being relentlessly pursued by a mysterious being called the Driver. Together, they try to piece together their broken memories to find out if the town is real, if they are dead, or if something else is happening to them…
Once again, I find myself sitting on the fence. More Than This is certainly not a bad book but it’s ultimately not everything that I hoped it would be. I had high expectations for this novel based on my love of The Knife of Never Letting Go and perhaps this is why I was ultimately left feeling a bit underwhelmed. It’s hard to talk about this story without giving too much away but let me try and explain my feelings in a spoiler-free way.
The concept of this novel is superb and for the first hundred and fifty pages, I was utterly hooked. The story begins, as you might expect, with Seth’s death. It’s dramatic and violent, drawing in the reader by introducing the protagonist while he is at his most vulnerable. The chapters that follow maintain this tension by following Seth as he explores the ruined town. There are no other characters or dialogue (other than in Seth’s dreams). It is just him trying to make sense of the wasteland.
For me this was gripping. Although the Seth firmly believes himself to be in Hell, I was left with constant feeling that there just had to be more to his situation. Everywhere Seth looked, more questions seemed to be raised. Who had bandaged him? What was the odd coffin his bedroom? Why had all the people just vanished, leaving supermarkets stocked with food? I was just completely invested in discovering what had really happened to Seth.
Added to this was the fact that Seth was just a really sympathetic character. As his flashback dreams gradually revealed the events leading up to his death, I really started to feel sorry for him. He’d been handed all the lemons that life had to offer and the constant string of rejections – his parents, his friends, Gudmund – just gradually ate away at his spirit. Yet as the novel progresses, Seth really does find inner strength, enabling him to start to see the bigger picture and find the true meaning to his existence. Just as there is more to the world in which he has awakened, there is also more to Seth’s story than even he initially realises. I won’t say anything else for risk of spoilers this but what he discovers is emotional, profound and highly self-affirming.
However, I did gradually find myself losing interest in the second half. While Ness is a beautiful, evocative writer, I didn’t find the dystopian aspect of the plot to be especially satisfying. The science fiction elements of the story felt unoriginal and really slapped on, taking too much from The Matrix and never fully explaining themselves. Although the novel only seems to be set a little in our future (the English high street still has a Topshop), the level of technology is absurdly advanced and we never discover why. It’s not even clear what the Driver is or why it behaves the way that it does (especially towards the climax). Due to the fact that everything is told from Seth’s perspective, a lot of the greater explanations are left open to interpretation.
I also never really connected with Regine and Tomasz in the way I did with Seth and his school friends. Although both of them had distinct characters and backstories, there wasn’t a lot of substance to either of them. Seth only really got to know them over the course of a couple of days and I never felt that the friendship between them was very strong in their conversations, existing more for necessity than anything else. However, it was nice to see the level of diversity in the primary cast. Have the trio consist of a gay teenager, a person of colour and a Polish boy helped make this novel stand out in a genre that is frequently whitewashed.
Finally, I guess I should talk about the message of the story though please bear in mind that I’m a Philosophy major and so can be a little picky in this regard. Personally, I found the novel to be heavy handed. Its message wasn’t all that subtle, largely spoon-feeding the reader with some weighted discourses on the nature of reality and the afterlife (loosely recreating the infamous “brain in a vat” hypothesis). A lot of this dialogue didn’t really sound as though it came from the mouth of a teenage boy, especially as Seth in his school life isn’t shown to be particularly reflective.
However, I really did like that this novel tackled some very challenging themes. It is not an easy book to read, both for its philosophical overtones and the darkness of its subject matter. While the story isn’t graphic, it does touch on themes like homosexuality, suicide, child abuse and victim blaming in a mature and thought-provoking way. It’s ultimate anti-suicide message was quite beautiful and certainly stuck with me long after I’d finished reading.
In short, More Than This is a fascinating novel that has a lot going for it. It’s by no means perfect (and I do personally think it’s inferior to Ness’s Chaos Walking Trilogy) but it is definitely one that I think you should check out. It’ll certainly give you a lot to think about.
More Than This can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book from Amazon.co.uk