Guest Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

September 26, 2013 / 9 Comments / Review, Uncategorized

Hi everyone! Today I have another awesome guest review from my husband, Evan!

In case you don’t know the background…Evan is a very smart sci-fi, film, and comic book aficionado who usually reads literary stuff like Michael Chabon and Salman Rushdie. Sometimes he reads and reviews YA sci-fi and dystopian books for my blog.

Today, he’s looking at an older, but very popular YA series by Patrick Ness, which will soon be a movie. All gifs courtesy of him!

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Book #1 in the Chaos Walking series)
Author: Patrick Ness (website | twitter)
Publisher: Candlewick Press

Format: Hardcover, 479 pages
Publication date: May 5, 2008
Evan’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars


Todd is the youngest boy in New Prentisstown and, as far as he knows, on all of New World. When the story begins, Todd is about to turn 13, which is considered by the townspeople to be a huge turning point, a boy becoming a man. But nobody’s ever told Todd why 13 is so important, or what becoming a man really means.

The people of New Prentisstown had come to New World after fleeing from Earth, an overcrowded metropolis. They sought a simple, religious, farming life. What they actually got was a planet full of “Noise,” where everybody could suddenly read everybody else’s thoughts (including animals!) Worse still, the Noise virus turned out to be fatal for women, and they all died, thus dooming the remaining men to eventual extinction.

A few weeks before his birthday, Todd’s adoptive fathers, Ben and Cillian, unexpectedly warn him that he has to flee New Prentisstown, now. Before he knows what’s hit him, he’s on the run with the whole town – now an army – on his trail, leaving a path of murder and destruction in their wake. And he doesn’t even know why he’s so important!


If you haven’t heard of this book (which I hadn’t until recently), all you need to know is: it’s going to be a film, by the screenwriter of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and the director of Back to the Future! Charlie Kaufman and Robert Zemeckis’ combined movie credits also include Forrest Gump, Contact, Cast Away, Being John Malkovich, and Adaptation. I’m very excited about this movie.

On top of that, the Knife of Never Letting Go is one of the best page-turner YA dystopians I’ve read since Hunger Games.

Part 1 of 3 of the Chaos Walking series, The Knife of Never Letting Go introduces us to two very compelling characters, Todd Hewitt and… well, even saying the name of the second major character could be considered a spoiler. This story is filled with mystery, which sometimes works beautifully and sometimes doesn’t (more on that below).

After reading the synopsis, you might be wondering why Todd can’t just listen to the townspeople’s thoughts about why he’s so important to them. Well, that’s not a plot hole but actually one of the book’s strengths. Here’s the explanation:

That’s the thing, tho. Noise is noise. It’s crash and clatter and it usually adds up to one big mash of sound and thought and picture and half the time it’s impossible to make any sense of it at all. Men’s minds are messy places and Noise is like the active, breathing face of that mess. It’s what’s true and what’s believed and what’s imagined and what’s fantasized and it says one thing and a completely opposite thing at the same time and even tho the truth is definitely in there, how can you tell what’s true and what’s not when yer getting everything? 

The Noise is a man unfiltered, and without a filter, a man is just chaos walking.

What I love is that Ness hasn’t just turned a planet where people can read each other’s thoughts into a clever new context for a YA adventure story. He’s also extremely thoughtful and insightful about his sci-fi concepts.

[this is how the Noise looks on the page]

What would it really be like to be able to hear another person’s thoughts, a “man unfiltered,” as Todd says? It turns out that it can be beautiful, sad, hilarious, and a little embarrassing, all at the same time. Describing a local shop owner, Todd narrates:

Mr. Phelps spends all his time despairing. Even when yer buying stuff from him and he’s polite as can be, the despair of him seeps at you like pus from a cut. ENDING, says his Noise. ENDING, IT’S ALL ENDING and RAGS AND RAGS AND RAGS and MY JULIE, MY DEAR, DEAR JULIE who was his wife and who don’t wear no clothes at all in Mr. Phelps’s Noise. 

Unfortunately, I did have one major problem with this book.

When Ben sends Todd off to flee, he feeds him some images from his Noise, which are meant to show Todd the real history of New Prentisstown. Ness writes:

And he closes his eyes and opens up his Noise for me. (…) 
And here comes my birthday –
The day I’ll become a man – 
And – (…)
There it all is –
What happens –
What the other boys did who became men –
All alone –
All by themselves –
How every last bit of boyhood is killed off – (…)
And what actually happened to the people who –
Holy crap –
And I don’t want to say no more about it.

I guess Todd doesn’t really understand what he’s seen, but the reader is given nothing. No hint whatsoever as to the content of those images.

Before I go on, I apologize, but I need to lecture a little about my views on suspense and dramatic irony.

Suspense can be created in three ways, one of which I consider to be really bad writing:

Option 1: You, the reader, can know more than the characters you’re meant to identify with. That can be suspenseful because the reader might be more enlightened about the danger of a situation than the character, or just see something coming that the character doesn’t.

Option 2: You, the reader can be given the exact same information as the characters you’re meant to identify with. That can be suspenseful because you’re experiencing the “not knowing” right along with the characters.

“Guys, where are we?”

Or, the dreaded Option 3: You, the reader, can be informed that the character in the book knows something, but they just haven’t told you yet. But you, the reader, really want to know, so it feels suspenseful and mysterious.

Sorry, but Lost is a good example of Options 2 and 3!

Option 3 is, frankly, just lazy and unimaginative writing. It shows a fundamental disrespect for the reader, and a complete lack of confidence in the quality of the story, as if the reader needs to be forced by the author to keep reading just to find out what the heck’s going on. It should be the story that creates the suspense, not the withholding of the story. Worst of all, Option 3 puts the reader at an artificial distance that makes it harder to sympathize with the characters.

Unfortunately, Ness makes far too frequent use of Option 3. The quote above when Todd sees the images from Ben occurs on page 52 of the novel. We aren’t told what Todd saw until page 390. Todd knows. He just isn’t telling. In the 338 pages in between, Ness teases the reader, in sometimes laughable ways, with something always interrupting right at the last second before the information gets released:

“It’s time you knew, Todd.” He says. “Time you knew the truth.” 

There’s a snap of branches and…

Come on!

Despite how strongly I feel about this issue, it’s a pretty small complaint, because the rest of the book is really good. Like Hunger Games, the sci-fi in this book is done right. Like all great sci-fi novels, The Knife of Never Letting Go explores its themes of colonization, herd mentality, privacy and identity (“knowing a man’s Noise ain’t knowing the man”), in interesting and cerebral ways, but still manages to keep it all rooted in real human emotions.  

One word of warning: also like Hunger Games, this book is about teenagers who face the problem of how to be a moral person in an incredibly immoral and unforgiving society. And Patrick Ness does not hold back. Even more so than Suzanne Collins in Hunger Games, Ness will go anywhere to show the vast stakes that these characters are facing. I loved it, but not everybody will want to read a book where really, really horrible and upsetting things happen, and no character is safe. So, be warned that this is a brave, but at times, very difficult book.

Highly recommended. (I’m halfway into Book 2 and it actually gets a lot better!)

Thanks so much, Evan! I might have to check this one out – I like binge-ing on series – especially dystopian series, and this one sounds really well-written (other than the suspense thing). Are you guys interested in reading the Chaos Walking series? Will you check it out if a movie comes out? How do you feel about “hard” books, books that really make you feel and cry for characters? Let us know in the comments (or just give Evan props on this awesome review)!

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9 responses to “Guest Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

    • I love having Evan review, because my blog can be a bit girly (nothing wrong with that), and I love having a guy's perspective. Also, he reads a lot of stuff that I won't always get to. =) Definitely encourage your husband to review, too – it's fun!

  1. This is such a good series! No, that is a massive understatement. IT IS AMAZING. I had such a book hangover after reading the Chaos Walking Trilogy because nothing could match up. Great review!

  2. I loved this series. Honestly, I am a little frightened by the movie. The book is very "out there" and a movie could so easily cross the line into the cheesy zone by bringing some of the scenes to life. Again though, I LOVED these books. They are part of the reason I started to read more YA. So thank you Patrick Ness. And also, I think it was really cool to get a guy's opinion about these books. Really great idea, and really thoughtful review!

  3. Wow! I've seen this book on blogs and Goodreads but never really bothered checking it out. Sounds just fantastic!!! And that's a great title. Definitely checking this one out soon.

  4. I've heard a lot about this book but I can't decide if I'm gonna put it on my tbr list or not,but reading that they're gonna make a movie out of it…I think I might give it a try 🙂

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