Another book for the Alphabet Soup bookclub over at calico_reaction! I was super excited when this book was chosen for the month of March because I've actually been wanting to read this series for ages. I've only heard good things about it from bloggers who I trust (or have similar tastes with.) I was almost afraid I wouldn't get to read this during the challenge period because I've been epically swamped with homework (six essays due within the next two weeks, six exams after that, a dozen or so assignments) BUT I made time to read this and I'm REALLY glad I did. By the way, this review of going to have crazy spoilers, so if you plan on reading this, please for the love of god, don't look under the cut.
The first thing I want to say is this: this book is BLEAK. If you want to read something that's going to make you feel good and fuzzy on the inside, don't read this book. It's very, very depressing. Especially the latter half, once you've gotten kind of attached to the characters and you just want them to be okay.
Speaking of characters, I think Ness did a really great job at creating likable and believable characters in a pretty crazy setting. They weren't any typical YA stereotypes in here, which I really appreciated. Todd is a character that is really flawed: he's ignorant, uneducated (though not by choice) and stubborn about some things. However, he's also caring and loyal and giving. He wasn't the picture of a perfect main character, nor was he swoon-worthy, but he also wasn't the typical dorky/quirky/misunderstood male character that I find is prevalent in books that feature male narrators.
Viola was much the same way; Todd never focuses on her looks or anything, so I think we can safely assume that she's not drop-dead gorgeous, and while she's much more knowledgeable than Todd, she isn't super-girl either. She's just *normal* (as one can be within the setting of the novel anyway.)
And then of course there's Manchee. Poor, poor Manchee. :( I loved that dog so much. He reminds me of my dog a bit; kind of stuff, but in the end, so loyal and downright lovable. I really liked how Ness captured Manchee's "voice". It's totally how I imagine a dog would talk if they could, and it actually reminded me a lot of the dog from the movie Up. I cried so hard when Manchee died though, it was terrible. Funny story regarding that actually. Me and my boyfriend (who was over at the time) were having a bit of a tiff, so to distract myself I went and grabbed this and started reading. About fifteen minutes in, I just started blubbering like a huge baby because I got to Manchee's poor demise, and my boyfriend couldn't understand why I was crying so hard over our disagreement (haaa) so I had to try to explain to him how stupidly sad that scene was and that it was why I was actually crying. Actually, ANY time Manchee got beat up I would get a little teary. His poor laments of 'Todd?' whenever he got hurt broke my heart, or when he would apologize for biting Todd after getting hit because he was in so much pain. As you can see, Ness really hit a button with me with Manchee.
The Noise was a really neat element. It's something that's obviously been done before, mind reading isn't new by any means, but Ness approached it from an interesting angle. Having EVERYONE, except women, be able to read each other's minds? Creepy stuff. The fonts used throughout the book to denote the Noise were also all very appropriate and gave a more visceral sense of what it would be like to hear other people's thoughts. It also just raises the stakes of everything and makes the world a whole lot more dangerous, which gave a sense of urgency to everything going on, which was a welcome layer to the story, especially considering it's one where almost all Todd and Viola do is run away, and can't trust anybody.
Now, the pacing of this book is actually fairly slow, which is kind of strange, because Todd has to escape and be on the run very early on in the book. But it felt like there was just so MUCH running. Constantly. When the secrets start to come to light and more and more is revealed about the setting and what's going on, I felt like things really picked up. It was a bit of a slow process though, and how my liking for this book crept on me.
There's some really great world-building going on in this novel too. Ness doesn't info-dump ever, and while I felt at times that he was withholding information almost unfairly (Todd thinking about what happens to boys when they become men comes to mind -- he mentions it very early on and abruptly stops and purposefully changes the subject, which really frustrated me) but even though it was kind of frustrating, I thought he did it WELL, and wrote the first person narration very well. The setting itself kind of reminded me of the Chrysalids: it's set in the future (and in this case, on another planet), but civilization, for many different reasons, has gone backwards as far as technology is concerned. So it's sci-fi without really feeling like sci-fi.
I was annoyed at myself for not figuring some of the secrets out sooner, such as all the women in Prentisstown being murdered, because looking back, it all seems so obvious now. Ah well. Anyway, my point is, is that Ness always leaves a bone at the end of the stick to lead you on to reading the rest of the book, and it worked for me. I needed, and wanted, to know what the hell was going on. The little bits and pieces were revealed at a good pace: not too much all at once, but not too far apart so that I would get bored.
I also have to applaud Ness for being so gritty. Like I mentioned before, this book is bleak and rather depressing. It doesn't sugar-coat anything at all, and things get really brutal. He killed off the DOG for crying out loud; it doesn't get much more depressing than when an animal dies. There's LOTS of death in this book too. It doesn't dumb down the casualties of war, even if this is a smaller scale one.
My last point I want to talk about is the ENDING. ARG. I can't believe he ended it on a cliffhanger, and such a frikken sad one too!! Though that actually isn't that surprising, when you consider the rest of the book. These poor protags have been through so much, and I was so happy they made it to their destination, and then things just spiraled out of control and ended on the worst possible note. *sigh*
Final Verdict: This is a GOOD book. It was slow to start, but as I went on I got really sucked in. It's got a solid cast of characters who are very normal and very flawed people. I seriously just wanted these poor kids to be okay, and while the ending didn't really promise me that (at all), it's only made me want to read the two sequels. There's great first-person narration going here as well; I think Ness made good use of it, and uses the element of the Noise to bring it a step further and I thought it was nicely done. There's a great Chrysalids-esque setting that Ness builds up on nicely, so even if you're not a lover of sci-fi, there might be something here for you. It's a dark and depressing book that doesn't hold back on the grit or violence, so if you're looking for something happy I wouldn't recommend this title. However, if you're not looking for light and fluffy, this is definitely worth checking out.