Knife of Never Letting Go: The Ben Stiller Movie of Young Adult Fiction

Along Came Polly with Ben Stiller (Not what I’m reviewing)

You know whenever you watch Ben Stiller movies, and Ben Stiller just gets ripped a new one over and over and over again until you just can’t handle anymore of the “dumpage” on his character?  This is true for his movies like Along Came Polly, Meet the Fockers (2-79), Meet the Parents, and other films where he’s the romantic male lead.  These movies don’t make me want to date “the nice guy,” but they do help me to imagine a real life dating scenario where my Dad has a secret panic room and he uses it to polygraph my boyfriends.

Films like these are sometimes a little too similar to young adult novels.  In fact, I think this is one of the things that separates young adult novels from true adult literary fiction.  There must be a big twist.  It must be able to adapt to a big screen, hypersensitive audience that’s used to automatic gratification in the world of social media and so they read in order to prolong the inevitable *almost* happy ending.  In adult books, if someone is getting treated horribly wrong, it’s more likely that the ending will be “satisfying,” or “complete,” but not quite dreamland happiness.  See for example: Bastards Out of Carolina, The Glass Castle, Sula, The Bone People, Loving Frank, Go Set a Watchman, God-Shaped Hole, White Oleander, Invisible Man, or any Philip Roth book.  

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness Question: Did these books all come out at the same time because I can’t imagine readers waiting for the second one with this sort of dissatisfaction in the ending?

On the contrary though, while we expect adult books to break our heart in more subtle ways, young adult books are allowed to bend the rules of epic plot twists and break our hearts in one large kerplunk, the way a giant might step on a small human heart like an elevator landing.  See: Any John Green book ever, Eleanor and Park, and the book I’m supposed to be getting to in this blog, Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, the first in the Chaos Walking Trilogy.

I didn’t like this book. I know, I’m going against the grain here, but it was pretty unrealistic, had a terrible ending, and doesn’t quite hit the questions it needed to. And let me say that I realize this is a trilogy and somewhere along the way in this three-part series, there are the golden arches of happiness and birds are singing, but in this book, it was just entirely too dramatic with little to no payoff.  This is the book version of a Ben Stiller movie.

The book begins in Prentisstown, an all male town where the men have something called “Noise.” The Noise is this endless loop of thoughts coming out of the heads of the townsmen.  Every man can hear every other man’s thoughts and although there are moments where we see men can bury secret noise under other everyday noise, there’s not much hiding what’s going on in your head in Prentisstown.  A boy named Todd is about to come of age and he would be the last boy to become a man in the town.  Without women, obviously the town is doomed to die off (which is hanging over the novel the whole time, but never really mentioned).  He has a dog named Manchee and he’s your typical, angry thirteen year old.   One day, he meets a silence (a girl) and they are forced to run to other settlements without knowing why, and the only information they have is a book written to Todd by his mother which he can’t read because books have been banned in Prentisstown.  The girl and Todd are forced to reckon with the wilderness, men of Prentisstown forming an army to find them, a tyrannical preacher, creatures of the planet called Spackles that everyone thinks went extinct during the “war,” and the rest of the population which Todd must discover as he travels across New World.

Noise on a page

Wooph, that was a lot of information.

The problem with this book is that there are very few happy moments that are not met with immediate despair.  Every time Todd, Manchee (his dog), and the silence (what we’re going to call her so that I don’t ruin anything), are forced to sprint (literally, the word used most often for their travels in the novel) across New World for WEEKS with a knapsack of food, a few human helping hands, and a knife.  Sometimes, the silence pulls these extraterrestrial, technologically unsound advantages from her backpack, but mostly that’s what they have.  I have a real problem with people who sprint for an entire novel, get beat up about every forty pages, catch fevers that put them in comas, and still are able to get up and sprint for the last one hundred pages.  The unlikeliness of this in a world of human endeavor is so far out of reach that it got pretty annoying.

Love this cover so much more.

I realize that there are those of you that will claim that this is a “fantasy novel,” or a “science fiction novel,” so anything is allowed, but that’s just unrealistic.  The power in fantasy/sci-fi novels is that they mix the realistic human spirit with the miraculous world of magic and science.  We fall for those characters because they seem so similar to us in so many ways, yet they live in these twisted worlds that are either the future imaginings of ours, or other planets all together where new triumphs of the human spirit can be found.  This is why Ender’s Game is such a powerful male young adult novel.  Ender is so, so, human for lack of better wording, and he’s still expected to face the devils of outer space in order to save his home planet.  While I believe Knife of Never Letting Go is one of the closer books I’ve found for a male young adult audience, I don’t think it knocks it out of the park.

Fan art that I can’t seem to give credit to (http://theknifeofneverlettinggo-ness.weebly.com/plot-overview.html) came from here.

I see the philosophical ideas that Ness was trying to play with.  One of my best friends plans to use this book in her seventh grade classroom to tackle those essential questions, but without the classroom guidance and discussion what young adult really thinks about those things past the adventure of the book?  Ness toys with this idea of gender roles, and gender expectations, and also with the idea of silence and the idea of noise and how they blend together and balance in our world, but I’m not sure he takes it far enough to leave those lingering questions in a child’s mind.  Why is it that girls are always called quiet and sweet? Why is it that boys are the ones expected to produce violence? (And with this, are girls even allowed to be violent?) At what point in a culture does power become the one true asset to success?  What deaths are senseless and what deaths are essential? Even better, when is death an acceptable reaction or affect to some cause? These ideas aren’t pushed enough, in this first book at least, to leave a lasting empathetic impact on the reader.  I wasn’t asking these questions until I had to study the book for this blog.

(Deviantgrace @ Tumblr) (WishfulThinking @ Tumblr) This is Todd Hewitt from Knife of Never Letting Go

Now, don’t get me wrong, the pacing of this book is meant to satisfy.  Just when the reader is like “okay, we’ve been running enough,” Ness throws in a knife fight or a battle scar.  Like I said, every forty pages or so, we have a tragedy or a power struggle.  A middle grades boy would not be able to put this book down because it’s so compact and reads like a movie script.  The pacing, however, is set up for this “big reveal,” which is a COMPLETE let down.  Every time the reader gets close, we’re interrupted by someone on horseback, or the narrator decides “it’s too ugly to hear” and so Todd just shuts off his first person narration and leaves that carrot dangling.  It was far too long for me to read a swift run in the woods to actually know what was going on.

There are two death scenes that evoke real emotion in the reader.  The dog character is a bit like the dog in Up, but he is a character in and of himself and anyone with an animal will testify to the power of his character.  There’s also a clear group of people to root for.  There is no question about who the good guys are, however, there isn’t enough information about the bad guys other than glimpses of them taking over towns (by glimpses I mean Todd looks over his shoulder for two seconds and describes in a sentence what he sees the army doing which usually involves flames).  There’s a chase FOR THE ENTIRE NOVEL.

More fan art. (@flexreads on Pinterest)

Really though, I just don’t understand how much you can put one character through until the reader just wants a hint of pleasure.  There were moments when I thought (and Todd thought) that something more was happening with Viola.  I feel like there’s some connection there to his “becoming a man” at age fourteen.  However, a thirteen year old shouldn’t really have romantic yearnings for his female sidekick, that’s not what I’m looking for from a book with a thirteen year old protagonist.  I think Ness’ aging is a little off there because I have a feeling there will be love at some point in the series.  I just am not sure this romance was appropriate for this book. 

The ending is the part that really convinced me that I don’t need to read the other two.  The ending is a true cliffhanger which gave me honest to goodness rage.  I won’t ruin it for anyone, but I said “Really?” out loud and then closed the book like I was slamming a door and settled back into the couch.  Not only could the worst possible thing happen, but it happens alongside the second worst possible thing.  It was just, ugh.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

Sometimes books like this one remind me why I read mostly adult books. I follow a lot of readers on Instagram that gram a lot of young adult books and talk about their “fangirling.”  I just can’t get into books where tragedy is the selling point, or violence.  I don’t read to be torn apart, I read to be put back together.

But really, was Aaron even human? Or is he like part Spackle and I just missed something?

10 thoughts on “Knife of Never Letting Go: The Ben Stiller Movie of Young Adult Fiction

  1. Justice says:

    Nice review, Cassie! I haven’t come across this one yet, but it doesn’t seem like my cup of tea either. Your comments about the protagonist’s romantic feelings/age made me think of a conference I attended. Jamie Ford was speaking, and it was around the peak of literary fervor for his book Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. He made a comment about trusting instincts for characters and their motivations, because a lot of initial criticism was about the characters’ youth and their friendship. Apparently one agent/editor advised him to make the characters older so they could “fully explore their relationship.” Not everything has to be a love story, or a physical connection! I also thought John Green did a fairly good job of exploring that with some of the interactions in Looking for Alaska.

    • Cassie says:

      I like that it doesn’t, ESPECIALLY in young adult but I could see in this first book that he was trying to go that way later and I didn’t want it. I wanted the relationship to stay close but innocent of any romance. It’s frustrating I think that way. I hope he kept them young for that very reason. I REALLY didn’t like Looking for Alaska or any John Green book, but I agree that the characters in that book made sense, like their relationship made sense.

  2. Life of a Female Bibliophile says:

    Sorry you didn’t enjoy this book. I do really like this series and I’ve got one more book before I finished. I really enjoyed your review and you brought up some valid points about the themes Ness discusses his novels. I agree that he could dig a little deeper when he brings up issues like gender roles. I think the second book was a lot stronger than the first one and I definitely enjoyed it more, but we’ll see when I finally finish the series. I completely forgot Todd is supposed to be 13, I’ve been reading the books as if he was 15/16 years old, lol.

    • Cassie says:

      Ouuuu, can you give me a good reason to read the second one. I’m interested to see how you like the series in its entirety. I read it that way too and then I would suddenly realize like … Wait, he’s thirteen and be shocked again. Ah! Does the dynamic change to Todd’s side in the second one at least?

      • Life of a Female Bibliophile says:

        A little bit, it’s still got some of that “Ben Stiller” feel, but Todd’s character develops more in the second book. Whereas he’s more naive in the first novel he gets a lot smarter in the second book, so in a way he learns to play the mayor’s “game”. To be honest I read the book a long time ago and I got bored with it the first read-around. As I grew older I learned to enjoy and appreciate the book a lot better. Hope this helps your decision? (It’s so hard to explain without giving away the story) But if this book isn’t up your alley I’ve heard “A Monster Calls” is a particularly good book by Ness. Happy Holidays!

      • Cassie says:

        I LOVE A Monster Calls. It was so so so wonderful. That’s why I started this series because I love every other Patrick Ness book. I wonder if I might like that new strategy better. Maybe when I have nothing else to read I will try that one. I have such a long list at this point it’s just crazy. What’s the best book you read this year? Happy Holidays to you as well! πŸŽ…πŸ½πŸŽ„πŸ’‹

      • Cassie says:

        I haven’t heard of that one, I will have to request it from the library. I think mine was The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

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