“Where They Don’t Want To Go”: The Ask and The Answer

"The Ask and The Answer" by Patrick Ness
"The Ask and The Answer" by Patrick Ness (UK)

The Ask and The Answer is a more diffuse work than its predecessor, The Knife of Never Letting Go: where I wondered if Patrick Ness hadn’t set himself an easy target with his road trip bildungsroman, in the second book of his Choas Walking trilogy he lets a second character share the narration, disperses his story’s events across a broader expanse of time and space, and tells a tale without any special forward momentum of its own. This is fitting: where The Knife of Never Letting Go was about learning you can’t always be a child, The Ask and the Answer is about the burdens of adulthood

We left our protagonists, Todd and Viola, in the clutches of the Mayor, the shadowy leader of Todd’s misogynistic hometown; he has overtaken them in their flight to the peaceful ‘city’ of Haven, which has surrendered to him on the mere rumour of an army. The Mayor is now the President, and he does indeed prove to be all-powerful. The Mayor is unfortunately cackling: at first, I wondered if Ness wasn’t going to do something interesting with the character, but by the book’s end he is as unambiguously evil as you can get. This seems a pity, because the woman who leads the resistance to the Mayor’s rule, the ruthless Mistress Coyle, is one of the book’s finer illustrations of its central truth: there is no black and white.

Mistress Coyle is fierce in her opposition to the Mayor, but has few scruples about opposing him. She becomes the leader of a terrorist organisation, The Answer, bombing the town and dismissing civilian casualties as unfortunate-but-unavoidable collateral damage. We know the Mayor is evil; Mistress Coyle should be the book’s hero. She remains, however, a frightening figure – Viola, who joins The Answer without actually being given much of a choice (a recurring theme), comes to understand that you can fight for the right thing in the wrong way. It’s made increasingly clear that Coyle would be little better than the Mayor.

And yet the Mayor’s ranting evil undermines this message: by the close of the book, when every woman in his jurisdiction has essentially been branded and he has admitted to mass slaughter, it’s hard to imagine a darker shade of grey. Todd and Viola are consistently told that “we are the choices we make,” and The Ask and the Answer contrives to show that very often we don’t even have unconstrained options. Both Todd and Viola make very bad decisions in the course of the book (Todd continues to be very slow on the uptake, but unlike some other readers his denseness didn’t bother me, since it was so consistently done). The problem with the book, however, is that the Mayor is so obviously the worst person on the planet that the moral amiguity Ness is aiming for cannot quite stick.

Though in The Knife of Never Letting Go it was made clear that refugees from across New World were streaming towards Haven, it seems strange that in The Ask and the Answer the fate of a whole world is presenting as being able to be decided in one town, albeit its largest. The situation of the Spackle, too, seems more thinly drawn than the worldbuilding in The Knife of Never Letting Go – survivors of the war, we are told, were pressganged into slavery by the victorious humans, even as a whole nation of Spackle lived just over an agreed border. This didn’t seem quite to work in the way it was explained, and that’s a real shame: in their mute defiance, the Spackle were one of the most interesting counterpoints in the book.

"The Ask and The Answer" by Patrick Ness (US)
"The Ask and The Answer" by Patrick Ness (US)

Chance has made some of these points already, but for my money her best comment is about Viola: one of the novel’s narrators, she alas never quite comes together as a character. She simply doesn’t seem to match the background we are given for her. This wouldn’t be an issue if that background wasn’t the engine of the plot – both the Mayor and Mistress Coyle are driven by their knowledge that Viola’s people are coming to New World soon. Still, Viola is given some of the best parts of the book – her conflicted conscience, because her intelligence enables her to express it so much better than Todd can manage, is at the centre of the novel, as her burgeoning sense of the almost irresolvable injustice of the world comes to influence more and more her decision-making.

It is this process of decision-making which The Ask and The Answer most pertinently addresses: Todd, who has learned that what people tell him to do is often not what he should do, must now learn how to make his own way through a world decidedly less simple than he had hoped. The flaws in the book conspire against as convincing a journey as he made in The Knife of Never Letting Go, but Ness has nevertheless written a compellingly readable novel. Like the book before it, The Ask and the Answer is a violent book which is commendably unflinching in its examination of such issues as torture, complicity and romance. It doesn’t manage itself as thoroughly as its predecessor, but it at the very least grows beyond it with confidence – ensuring that Monsters of Men, the trilogy’s final installment, will be required reading.