Friday, November 6, 2009

Review: The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

In middle and high school, as I became painfully aware of the fact that my school-assigned readings were dominated by male authors and male characters, I unofficially set out to read books that revolved around female characters. I never said "Oh, I won't read that book, it's about guys," but given a choice between two books, I would always choose the one about a girl. Back in May of this year I first read The Knife of Never Letting Go, and I remember being a little hesitant; why would I want to read a book set on a world where there were no women?!

Thank goodness I got over that hesitation, because The Knife of Never Letting Go is an amazing book, and Viola's awesomeness, combined with the terrible secrets of Prentisstown, make up for the lack of women.

The Ask and the Answer was high on my "Most anticipated books of 2009" list (right up there with Catching Fire). The Knife of Never Letting Go ends on a cliff hanger, and The Ask and the Answer picks up shortly after we were left hanging.

Haven, where Todd and Viola were sure they were going to be able to find refuge from Mayor Prentiss' relentless army, and find a way to contact the settler ships Viola had come from, has been transformed into New Prentisstown. Haven's mayor has been deposed and is held as a political prisoner, while Mayor Prentiss has installed himself as President Prentiss and is intent on reinstating order in New Prentisstown - there are curfews, men and women are separated...and the Mayor begins to limit who can have Haven's famed Cure for the Noise that plagues the men of the New World.

As Viola is recuperating from the wounds she sustained at the end of The Knife of Never Letting Go, she is sent to a house of healing - Haven has always had female Healers versus male Doctors, ostensibly so patients could choose whether they wanted to hear their doctors thoughts, but since men and women must now be kept separate female patients go to the Healers and male patients go to the Doctors. Surrounded by women - women who aren't too keen on Mayor Prentiss' new isolating policies - Viola learns some important history lessons about the New World, about the early days of colonization and the devastating Spackle War. Among those who fought in the Spackle War were a group of guerrilla warriors, mostly women who called themselves the Answer, who took up arms when they felt the male-led army wasn't doing a good enough job. Now that a new male threat has appeared, it looks like the Answer is going to have to return.

Todd is kept as far from Viola as possible - Mayor Prentiss will neither confirm nor deny that she is alive. Todd begins to fear the worst - that even if she isn't dead, she doesn't want to be with him anymore. Todd initially resists the Mayor's new rules - but as the terrorists of the Answer begin to make themselves known (and he wonders whether Viola is among them), some of the Mayor's policies make sense. He is just trying to protect them from the terrorists, isn't he?

The Ask and the Answer has some absolutely heart wrenching moments, as Todd and Viola are forced to choose sides in the conflict over New Prentisstown. As the Mayor tightens his grip on the women of New Prentisstown, I found myself comparing it to The Handmaid's Tale: In The Handmaid's Tale, we only get brief flashbacks to the events that led up to the total oppression of women; here in The Ask and the Answer, we actually get to see some of those steps taken: women and men separated, women only allowed out at certain times of the day and then only in small, tightly controlled groups - and even worse, grotesque measures that I won't spoil because you really need to read it for yourself to feel how TERRIBLE it is. Women are kept apart "for their own safety," yet it's widely known that the soldiers assigned to guard the women sneak into the women's homes and dormitories at night.

Todd and Viola do a lot of growing up in this book - it's wonderful and heartbreaking at the same time to see them forced into the frontlines of the Mayor's war. And my stomach dropped when it came to this book's cliffhanger ending - how long do I have to wait until book 3?!


Rachel Stark said...

Dear Angela,

When are you going to stop posting book reviews that REALLY make me want to go read these books right now? My life is kind of hectic right now, thanks.

Sincerely yours,

Angela said...

Dear Rachel,

Whenever I stop finding books that are so awesome they make you forget your life is hectic!



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