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Book Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go

January 10, 2012

When you look at its premise, The Knife of Never Letting Go seems like it would be derivative at best, especially coupled with its awkward name. A boy living in an off-world colony surrounded only by men, men whose thoughts he can hear all the time, and who meets a girl whose thoughts he can’t hear sounds like the beginning of a terrible commentary on male and female relationships coupled with tropey science fiction awfulness. When you hear that it’s also done in the main character’s vernacular, expectations plummet further: there’s no way the author can pull it off.

And yet. And yet he does, with an aplomb that really restored my waning faith in science fiction.

At its heart The Knife of Never Letting Go is a traditional adventure story: main character Todd Hewitt begins in one place, needs to go to another ahead of an oppressive force. He meets a girl, Viola, whose thoughts he cannot hear unlike every single man in his town.

The heaviness of the foundational tropes cannot be overemphasized, but the success with which Patrick Ness twists them can’t be, either. Todd Hewitt’s voice, which the narrative is told in, is explosive and propulsive, and it keeps the narrative rising until its intense conclusion. It’s a high degree of difficulty, too: midway through the book Ness offers us a beautiful, elegiac chapter inside Todd’s dreams and hallucinations with a very light touch.

That’s the best thing I can say about this book: it goes at tropes, but it does so with an incredibly soft touch. Todd’s never thinking, “I’m a man now!” or “I’m so brave and special!” but rather he’s growing naturally, through scenes with Viola and Manchee his dog and the antagonists. It’s a very efficient narrative that never sacrifices speed.

I have only a couple caveats that prevent me from 100% recommending this book for everyone. For one, Todd’s narration takes some getting used to. His voice definitely changes along the narrative, which is the most rewarding element, but for the first third of the book he’s sometimes annoying, sometimes alienating. This is hurt, a little bit, by the story being a little slow to take off. Additionally, there’s some plot holes if you look really hard for them; they aren’t major plot holes, but rather they are people making The Dumbest Possible Choices for no reason. Yes, I understand a lot of the author’s point here is about religion, but he pushes the point a little too far, and the plot strains under it.

Third, this is a desperately sad book. If you’re looking for a happy, enjoyable read, you’re not going to get that. Bad things happen to everyone in the book. It’s worse for some than others, and there’s definitely some ambiguity left by the author sometimes in the sadness, but, really, it’s a book that will make lots of people really sad. It’s also very much a trilogy, to the point where this book ends pretty much mid sentence. Ness does a good job of giving this piece a narrative arc so that I didn’t feel bad about this: there’s a definite capstone to The Knife of Never Letting Go while some plot threads are still left unresolved for the sequels.

That said, he ended the book in a profoundly uncool place. This isn’t really a negative. I appreciate that he’s so heartless, so inconsiderate of his reader’s feelings. But man. Man. The book is so beautiful but so sad and desperate. In the end I’d recommend it to people who love science fiction or young adult because it’s so well done but man, it’s awful depressing.

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