Confession time – I was given a Kindle for Christmas. I really like it. I still really like books too but for trilogies like this, when I want to read every installment in fast succession but don’t necessarily feel the need to buy the books, I think it will serve me well.
The Chaos Walking series is set on another planet, not hugely dissimilar to ours but with some key differences – the most notable being that its indigenous population, the Spackle, and its creatures can all hear one another’s thoughts. The men who arrive there from planet Earth are afflicted with this same “noise” but the women are immune, a state of affairs that has threatened the success of efforts by the early settlers to establish a new society. We first meet Todd, one of two main protagonists, as he approaches his coming of age in New Prentisstown, a settlement presided over by a clever but cruel mayor hell bent on controlling his citizens through their “noise” and who has eradicated all the women – an act which has been subject to some revisionism and blamed on a germ. When Todd discovers a “noise free” blip in the landscape, his brothers decide he must flee in order to save himself from the potential implications.
So begins an epic journey in the company of Viola, source of the anomaly that is “silence” and presage of a new generation of settlers. The mayor is hot on Todd and Viola’s heels, however, bringing an army with him and the two young people struggle with the knowledge that whomever gives them refuge will soon be caught up in a war. They head for the planet’s biggest town, Haven, but get separated on arrival, Todd ending up be captured by the Mayor and Viola falling in with a group of women healers, led by Mistress Coyle, sworn enemy of the Mayor. Haven’s capitulation to the Mayor’s advancing army means he’s in charge and he sets about bringing the population of the town to heel. Todd’s put to work alongside the Mayor’s son and keeping guard over a group of Spackle prisoners, facing tough moral struggles in the fight for survival. Viola becomes involved with Mistress Coyle’s resistance movement, the “Answer”, and she too faces difficult choices as the group turn to violence and sabotage. Appropriated by two opposing factions, Todd and Viola must fight hard to regain the connection and trust they built up over the long journey to get to Haven.
They are not the only ones fighting. It’s not long before Haven is descended upon by an army of Spackle and the “Answer’s” soldiers, the whole town erupting into war and chaos. Meanwhile the arrival of a space ship load of new settlers on the planet draws near and both Mistress Coyle and Mayor Prentiss want to be the ones to greet them and enlist their help.
Viola and Todd try to reason with their respective factions to make peace and to find ways to settle things with the Spackle. What they don’t know is that one of the Spackle who has taken up arms is an escapee from the group Todd previously helped hold prisoner. Christened the Return by his people, this man is anxious for revenge against his human captors and forms a close bond with the Spackle leader. So too does another man, Ben, Todd’s brother, left for dead but found by the Spackle and kept alive for the information he can provide.
When some of the new settlers land with missiles, medicines and opinions about whether to wage war or peace, it seems to be a game changer. But between Mistress Coyle, the Return and Mayor Prentis, there are no foregone conclusions and Viola and Todd need every ounce of their strength and determination to steer things in the direction they think is best for every inhabitant of the New World.
Ness’ writing is extraordinary – like that of Cormac McCarthy only better in my view. He addresses some of the big questions that we face as societies – is taking a life justified if it means saving so many more, for example – and Ness’ treatment of religious influences is far more satisfying than Veronica Roth’s in Allegiant. He has created a series of strong, credible, consistent but never predictable characters and given each a powerful voice. The power struggles and relationships he crafts are particularly well done and Mayor Prentis’s hold over Todd is riveting. In New World he gives us a fascinating place too, with just enough sci fi to make it interesting and enough of now to keep it real. One reviewer writing in the Guardian considers the trilogy will one day be considered ” one of the outstanding literary achievements of the present century. ” Only time will tell but I suspect he may be right.