Tag Archives: Manchee

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’

I started re-reading Patrick Ness’ incomparable ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy earlier this week just because it has been years since I last treated myself to it, and it is one of my all-time favourite stories to boot. I began to read it before the current media focus on the ongoing refugee crisis, and before Ness himself began this incredible fundraising campaign, which has (at time of writing) made over £200,000 available to Save the Children UK in order to help the struggling refugee families. But, in light of these developments, I’m writing this review with the aim of encouraging anyone who has never read the Chaos Walking books to buy and read them – or, indeed, any of Patrick Ness’ books. He has written many. His endeavours to help the dispossessed have made the last few days bearable for me, and (I’m sure) for many others. I know of no better way to support him than by – firstly, and obviously – donating to his cause, but also buying his books, and those of the other authors who have pitched in to help. The success of his campaign has truly been an amazing thing to witness and be part of.

In any case. On with the review.

Image: booksandrelatednonsense.tumblr.com

Image: booksandrelatednonsense.tumblr.com

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Walker Books, 2008) tells the story of Todd Hewitt, the last boy in Prentisstown. He is weeks away from turning thirteen, a birthday which will mark the moment in which he becomes a man, and – apparently – when his whole life will change. Because the newly-fledged men (who were once Todd’s contemporaries) stop speaking to him and including him in their lives once they pass their own thirteenth birthdays, he is friendless at the book’s beginning, save for his formidable, loyal, loving and clever dog, Manchee. He lives on a farm with his foster fathers, Ben and Cillian, who have raised him as their own since the deaths of his parents many years before.

The story is set in the future, where colonisers and settlers (presumably from Earth) have come to a ‘new world’ in search of a free and peaceful life, one free of discrimination. The planet they arrived on had a native population, known as the Spackle, whom Todd has been raised to believe are now extinct. The Spackle were dangerous, responsible for a virus which killed the women of Prentisstown, including Todd’s mother, and most of the men, and which caused the men who were left over to suffer with Noise, which essentially renders their every thought audible to anyone around them. Privacy is unknown. A man’s thoughts – even while he dreams – are broadcast, appearing like clouds of pictures around his head and as a ‘soundtrack’. The virus also made it possible to hear the voices of animals, so every beast, from Manchee to the livestock in the fields, are also broadcasting their thoughts, simplistic and repetitive as they might be. This means that Todd’s world is filled, edge to edge, with constant sound, the Noise making peace impossible to find, blending together to make a torrent of meaningless babble which must be aggravating, even for those who are used to living with it. Then, one day, as he explores a swamp not far from his home, Todd and Manchee come across something they’ve never known before: a patch of eerie silence, which shouldn’t exist…

As soon as Todd discovers this silence, his world changes. Ben and Cillian urge him to leave, straight away, telling him that he must reach another settlement – even though Todd has been raised to believe Prentisstown is the only settlement on his planet. In the confusion of his leaving, the men of Prentisstown attack Todd’s home, putting his fathers’ lives at risk, and he is pitched out alone into the swamp (where the crocs live) with only Manchee and a backpack, containing his late mother’s journal, to keep him on the right path. Thus begins an adventure whereby Todd finds himself meeting the most unexpected person possible, being chased by an army, and discovering why, exactly, his status as the ‘last boy’ in Prentisstown was so important.

This book is filled with brilliant characters (human and animal alike – I defy you to find a fictional dog more memorable and lovable than Manchee), and some of the most gripping, realistic – despite the literally otherworldly setting! – and emotionally affecting dialogue and set-pieces in modern fiction. It’s incredibly evocative, using slang and non-standard spelling to evoke dialect and accent, and as taut as a guitar string. The tension never lets up, the stakes never fail, and in Mayor Prentiss, Ness has created one of the most well-rounded and interesting baddies I’ve ever read. It is violent, immediate, blood-thirsty in places, and in other places it can be genuinely terrifying, because it confronts the darkest impulses in the human heart. But it also throbs with love – that between friends, between a boy and his dog, between a long-lost mother and her adored son, and that between a pair of tender foster fathers who give their all for the child they have sworn to protect. It truly is a book which promises much and delivers on it, and one which more than stands up to a re-read. It deals with issues like slavery, injustice, genocide, religious fundamentalism, sexual and gender-based inequality, colonialism, power imbalances, tyranny, and more, and all in the form of a brilliantly written, masterfully crafted tale. This is a book which tells of other worlds, ones intended to surpass and improve on our own, but which bear all the ill fruit of our own weaknesses.

YA literature is all about vampires and werewolves? I think not. Read this book, be amazed, and you’ll immediately find yourself craving its sequels. It’s a challenge, and my gauntlet is thrown!

Book Review Saturday – ‘After the Snow’

I’ll say this about S.D. Crockett’s ‘After the Snow’: the cover image lets you know what you’re in for.

Image: panmacmillan.com

Image: panmacmillan.com

The book’s title, and the author’s name, are written in such small font that it’s easy to overlook them completely. What overwhelms, on the other hand, is the image of the dog skull and the hastily scribbled words all over the background – words which, we learn as we read, belong to Willo, our fifteen-year-old narrator. This is fitting, because ‘After the Snow’ is a book which does its best to absorb the reader into a world of its own making, a future world where the damage done to the environment in our present day has resulted in almost neverending winter. It uses Willo’s dialect and idiosyncratic language, and his relationship with the dog-spirit he carries with him, as well as the detailed and palpable descriptions of the crushingly cold landscape, to achieve this.

I’m not entirely sure it’s successful.

There were parts of this book which I really admired – the descriptions of the snowdrifted landscape, for one, and the sometimes beautiful language employed, as well as the fire at the heart of Willo’s character – but there were a lot of things about this book that I didn’t like so much. I found Willo’s dialect hard to process, at first, but it did get easier after a few pages; however, there were times when I found his voice frustrating. I did love the character, though, and his determination and bravery, so Willo kept me reading. I also found the book’s pacing difficult to understand – not a lot happens for at least the first half of the book, or at least that’s how it felt to me; it seemed that too much was then crammed into the second half, leading to a strangely offbeat ending.

As for the plot: Willo lives with his family, deep in the wilds of the Welsh countryside, far from the prying eyes of the totalitarian-seeming government. They eke out a living, and seem very happy – cold, deprivation and near-starvation notwithstanding. Lacking a formal education, or much exposure to the world outside his immediate family, Willo has a unique way of dealing with the world; he has a dog spirit, which he hears inside his head at moments of crisis. He wears a dog skull on his hat, and has made a cloak out of the dog’s tanned hide. I thought this was a marvellous touch, and really made Willo come alive for me. I only wish that S.D. Crockett had allowed more time to the voice of the dog, and made more use of it – I was hoping for a relationship like that between Todd and his dog Manchee in ‘The Chaos Walking’ trilogy, but it wasn’t to be. Nevertheless I thought it was a very realistic and touching detail, this relationship between Willo and his ‘dog’, and it more than anything else really described the world in which Willo and his family live.

Willo’s family have been taken away as the novel opens. We learn about his father Robin and his stepmother Magda, his sisters and brothers (particularly Alice, ‘who got a baby with [Geraint, their elderly neighbour]. And she only been fourteen’ (p. 25). We realise that Willo and his dog-spirit are alone now, without any idea where the family have been taken or why they are gone. Willo suspects Geraint is behind it, and goes on a mission to find his family and bring Geraint to justice. In the course of this he meets Mary, a young girl whose father has left her and her young brother Tommy in an abandoned house while he searches for food. Willo knows the children are doomed if he doesn’t help them, but the dog-spirit – in the interests of keeping Willo alive – counsels him to keep going and forget them. Eventually, he manages to rescue Mary, and she travels with him on his somewhat aimless journey toward retribution.

When the story moves to ‘the City’, it begins to pick up pace. We read about living conditions so dire that I could barely believe it, and a government with an iron grip on its people. Crime and cruelty are the orders of the day. Willo (in one of these annoying coincidences that can crop up in books, sometimes) becomes apprenticed to a man who can lead him right to a powerful woman who holds a life-shattering secret about Willo, and what has happened to his family; before he can escape to join them, however, he is apprehended by enemies he didn’t even realise he had.

This book is a strange juxtaposition of quiet and loud. For the first 130 pages or so, we have Willo in the wilderness, dealing with wild animals and hunger and cold; there are some gruesome scenes, particularly when he is trying to rescue Mary and her brother, but nothing too stomach-turning. Then, we come to the second half of the book, and it’s like someone switched the colour contrast up. There are scenes and descriptions of such horror that I wondered whether I was reading a book aimed at children – I think, despite the differences between it and a ‘typical’ YA book, this story is more suited to older teenagers – and there were times when I felt it was a little too graphic for me. I understand we’re dealing with a world in which people have to do anything they can to survive, and that doesn’t lead to civilised behaviour, but there were some scenes which will stay with me for a long time. It was powerful and effective storytelling, but rather bleak. The book’s ending seems to come out of nowhere, then, and – being honest – it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. The darkness that led up to it suddenly explodes into light, and it was a strange contrast. There were also so many brilliant details that we didn’t hear enough about, including why China is the new superpower in this strange world, and what ANPEC (the government entity keeping the City in lockdown) actually is. We meet several characters that seem pointless, serving only to get Willo out of a bind, and there isn’t enough detail about this world and how it operates to really get a handle on understanding it. I thought that was a shame, because there are some really excellent ideas in this book, and I would have liked to explore its story world a bit more deeply.

Having said all that, I enjoyed the book. I loved Willo and his strange, unique voice, and I loved Mary, the brave little girl who fights like a tiger for survival. The picture this novel paints of the future is horrifying, but that’s the point, I guess. It’s a future we’re heading for, with our eyes open. One aspect of the novel which I found strange was the vituperative way in which things like recycling and wind power were spoken about – they were decried as being worse than useless in a world which could have harnessed nuclear and large-scale solar power (huge banks of solar panels in Africa, which are owned and operated by China, are mentioned in passing); part of the blame for the state of the world is laid at the feet of those who were too busy sorting their rubbish and spending millions on ‘winfarms’, as Willo calls them, to bother about proper ways of dealing with the environment. I’m not sure I agree with that, entirely, but I do take the point. Unless something drastic is done, the world we will bequeath to our descendants is one not too far removed from that in which Willo lives – and I hope I won’t be alive to see it.

Give this one a go if you’re looking for a dystopian novel with a difference – just make sure you’ve a strong stomach for the second half.

Happy reading!

A replica of Willo's 'dog hat', which was offered as a prize by the publishers of 'After the Snow.' Image: goodreads.com

A replica of Willo’s ‘dog hat’, which was offered as a prize by the publishers of ‘After the Snow.’
Image: goodreads.com