Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Book Review: Monsters of Men - Patrick Ness

Read: April 2010

Monsters of Men in one tweet-sized chunk:
Monsters of Men is a near perfect conclusion to a near perfect trilogy.

“War,” says Mayor Prentiss, his eyes glinting. “At last.”

So begins Monsters of Men, the final volume in Patrick Ness’s multi-award-winning Chaos Walking trilogy. Lines have been drawn, armies are marching; divisive and polarising leaders have got what they wanted. And Todd and Viola are caught in the middle of it, faced with ominous odds and unenviable choices. The first of these is to split up, with Todd staying behind to keep an eye on the Mayor and fight the invading Spackle army while Viola goes in search of the scout ship that has just landed. Once again, their trust in each other will be tested to its absolute limit.

Given that its title stems from the warning delivered by various characters throughout the series – “war makes monsters of men” – it is no surprise that war is the predominant theme and, for better or worse, shapes everything that takes place. Yet Monsters of Men is as complex and multifarious as war itself, an investigation into the many ways and many ends for which people are drawn into it. It is an enthralling culmination to the finest series I’ve read in many years. Chaos Walking combines first rate characterisation with heart-stoppingly exciting plots and engaging, direct, and often lyrical prose. I run out of superlatives when describing just how good it is.

Best of all it challenges the reader. You cannot sit back and watch passively as events unfold. At every turn you are placed in the characters’ shoes, confronted with the question: what would you do? What would you do if your greatest enemy were the only person who could save you from a marauding army bent on revenge? What would you do if your “one in particular” were about to die and the only way you could save them were to fire a missile that would kill hundreds, if not thousands, of enemy soldiers and destroy all hopes of a desperately wished for peace. Faced with the choice between vengeance and forgiveness what would you do? What space is there for idealism when your very survival is driven by a need for realpolitik?

Every choice is played through to its conclusion, laying clear the full ramifications of that choice, the characters forced to live with and adapt to the world they have shaped.  Reading is a dynamic experience; different fonts for the different narrators bring the text alive, Noise sometimes squeezing, sometimes ramming its way onto the page. Characters feel alive because their choices are your own and because they are each three- dimensional, capable of a whole gamut of actions and reactions, none of which are black or white. Ness seems to instinctively appreciate that it is in contradiction and hypocrisy that life is lived and experienced. Uncomfortable truths demonstrating just how difficult some choices are:

“Come!” he says to me. “See what it’s like to be on the winning side.”
And he rides off after the new soldiers.
I ride after him, gun up, but not shooting, just watching and feeling-
Feeling the thrill of it
Cuz that’s it-
That’s the nasty, nasty secret of war-
When yer winning-
When yer winning, it’s ruddy thrilling-

Or how about this, a realisation that love might be the most destructive possibility of all:

“I’d have done the same, Viola,” Todd says, one more time.
And I know he’s saying nothing but the truth.
But as he hugs me again before I leave, I can’t help but think it over and over.
If this is what Todd and I would do for each other, does that make us right?
Or does it make us dangerous?

Monsters of Men combines gripping storylines with real moral quandaries. In Todd and Viola it has heroes you root for with every ounce of your being. They are far from perfect and it is their self-abasement, their doubt, which makes them so likable. And the point that Todd and many other characters come back to time and again is that it’s not how you fall, but how you get back up again that counts.

Contrarily it is the absolute certainty of Mayor Prentiss and Mistress Coyle that makes them so hideous. Their bloodthirsty eagerness for war only adds to this, as does their calm and rational defence of its transformative nature, the Nietzschean survival of the fittest test by which you walk into the fire and either emerge bigger and stronger, or fall away. War doesn’t make monsters of men, Mayor Prentiss and Mistress Coyle chillingly echo each other early on. “It’s war that makes us men in the first place.”

Yet whereas The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and The Answer had, at their heart, a message that power is the ultimate end, Monsters of Men begins to reveal the inherent flaws in that argument. Madness is often defined as continuing to do the same thing time and time again yet expecting different results, and the longer the book goes on, the more those who seek to divide and rule appear ridiculous. Stuck using the same tactics as before, without recognising the new opportunities that exist.

Underlying their military struggle is another battle – this one an ideological struggle between competing visions of how peace is won (discussion versus force, individuality versus collectivism) – and they are losing it.
What would life be like if you could hear everybody’s thoughts, and everybody could hear yours? What would be the effect on individuality, free thought, privacy? These are the questions Ness posed in The Knife of Never Letting Go. In The Ask and The Answer the question evolved into competing ideas of how to run such a society. In Monsters of Men, the circle is completed and the benefits of Noise presented. What if communication were organic rather than active, a natural inter-connectedness that provided community to all and bred trust and unity rather than secrets and lies? How much more intimate might relationships be if miscommunication were no longer possible?

“I think it could be the way forward for all of us,”…If we can all learn to speak this way, then there won’t be any more division… That’s the secret of this planet, Todd. Communication, real and open, so we can finally understand each other.

Warmth, love, and hope abound. As the book goes on these choices begin to congeal around a coherent moral stance, a single call to arms: be the change you want in the world. No matter how hard that might be.

“I’m sorry, Bradley,” I say. “I couldn’t have done any other thing.”
He looks up sharply. “Yes, you could have.” He pulls himself to his feet and says it again, more firmly. “Yes, you could have. Choices may be unbelievably hard but they’re never impossible.”
“What if it’d been Simone down there instead of Todd?” I say.
And Simone is all over his Noise, his deep feelings for her, feelings I don’t think are returned. “You’re right,” He says. “I don’t know. I hope I’d make the right choice, but Viola it is a choice. To say you have no choice is to release yourself from responsibility and that’s not how a person with integrity acts.”

With a host of new characters – including an angry third narrator bent on revenge – who provide fresh impetus and perspective, Monsters of Men is a fitting conclusion full of all the qualities and insight that made its predecessors so rewarding. As you’d expect from a final volume, loose ends are tied up, though not at the expense of the narrative flow, and plenty remains unanswered. Most notably of all, Ness integrates the vast and powerful themes into the plot so seamlessly that they appear effortless. This is a rare and remarkable achievement. Monsters of Men is a near perfect conclusion to a near perfect trilogy.

Walker Books, May 2010, 9781406310271, 624pp

9.5 out of 10

No comments: