A first novel first, and one that by rights should be much more annoying than it actually is. Graceling is, after all, set in a generically medieval world with Seven Kingdoms, and never doubts that monarchy is just fine as long as there’s a Good Monarch on the throne; takes as its protagonist a very special young woman with a Grace — a magical talent of mysterious origin — that allows her to be the very best fighter in any of those kingdoms; and has its characters’ maturity levels thoroughly backwards, with a ten-year-old child who says things like, “Think … It wasn’t such a strange thing for him to do, knowing he might die in a fight” (280), and ostensibly worldly adults who need to ask, “Well, why does it pleasure him to hurt people? […] Everyone has some kind of power to hurt people. It doesn’t mean they do” (293). Moreover, it is distinguished by a procession of names that run from the uninspired — Wester for the Western Kingdom, Nander for the Northern one, Estill for the Eastern one, and so on — to the unbelievable — human characters called Tealiff, Raffin, Patch and, most painfully, Po. The whole book is like this, in a way that never really becomes unobtrusive: familiar, safely shaded within the lines of genre convention. And yet, somehow, it’s also zippy good fun, from first page to last.
My answer to this conundrum is to say that Cashore has a Grace of her own: a Grace for clarity. Graceling is distinguished by its crisp, direct language; by the orrery precision of Cashore’s plotting; by the careful but never ambiguous nuances of her characters’ emotional progressions; and by the firm yet unhectoring development of an argument about what it means to be a young woman — a woman with power — coming of age in a man’s world. The irritations noted above flow from the same well (Graces are never entirely without cost), as do some others: the Bad King Leck, for instance, who is simply and purely villainous not just because he has a Grace for telling lies about the world and making them stick — which would be enough — but because he tortures children and small animals.
On with the story. As the book begins, our Graceling, Katsa — yes, one letter away from being something you can order in Wagamama — is a thug for a Bad King, one who seized on her skill for violence as soon as it demonstrated itself, and moulded her into his strong arm. She has killed and tortured for him, often; but in secret rebellion, she has also set up a Council to carry out good deeds in an attempt to balance the scales. On one such Council mission, Katsa encounters another Graceling, a Prince from one of the other kingdoms — the aforementioned Po — who turns out to be on a mission of his own that intersects with hers. After some narrative throat-clearing, they join forces to solve the mystery of the kidnap of Po’s grandfather. It’s a well-paced adventure, with appropriately thrilling action, and satisfying revelations; but it is also, for a good long while, pretty much an excuse to have the two of them spend time together journeying across the Kingdoms, developing a relationship that is by turns affecting, nauseating, admirable and questionable: which is to say, believable.
In this Cashore is aided by her choice of Grace for Prince Po. Graces can be for almost anything you can imagine; physical skills such as swimming or climbing, say, or psychic talents such as precognition. Po’s Grace is of this latter type. He can sense the presence of other living beings, and when any of them think about him he picks it up like Noise. The downside is that, like other psychic Graces, such a talent attracts a certain degree of prejudice from the people of the Seven Kingdoms — or would, if they knew about it; Po takes care to keep the true nature of his Grace secret. On the upside, it’s a convenient way for Cashore to force characters to be direct with one another about their feelings, and provides many opportunities for knowing riffs on the development of relationships:
They had entire conversations in which they didn’t say a word. For Po could sense when Katsa desired to talk to him, and if there was a thing she wanted him to know, his Grace could capture that thing. It seemed a useful ability for them to practise. And Katsa found that the more comfortable she grew with opening her mind to him, the more practised she became with closing it as well. It was never entirely satisfying, closing her mind, because whenever she closed her feelings from him she must also close them from herself. But it was something. (177)
This is, though Katsa doesn’t use the word, what learning intimacy is like — a sense of the importance of human connection — and it’s a particular challenge for one as fiercely independent and physically-focused as she. (As she has to be, I might say; her Grace is an integral part of her, in that it’s shaped her personality, probably as significantly as anything in her lived experience.) There’s a lot of this sort of thing, and a lot of it goes straight to your heart. [Both Katsa and Po are extremely well-visualised characters, and their thoughts and reactions are complex and meaningful.] The problem, however, is an occasional sense that it’s too easy: that Po is too completely well-adjusted, too good to be true, too sympathetic, patient and generous at all times and to a fault. Po and Katsa’s relationship, for all its mutuality, is not one in which two people grow together, it’s one in which Po waits for Katsa’s emotional growth to catch up to his. The major emotional challenge faced by Po doesn’t come until late in the novel, and it’s the challenge of one who is knocked down and has to get up again, not — as Katsa’s challenge is — one of reaching beyond yourself. Some coincidences of content — an experienced survivor mentoring a younger girl; a long, frozen trek to get someone to safety — had me wondering whether Cashore was referencing The Adventures of Alyx; and thinking that, I can’t help wondering what Russ would make of Cashore’s certainty in the potential for and of open-hearted romantic relationships.
But the clear argument running through Graceling is that it is possible to see clearly in matters of the human heart, and always better to do so. As illustration, consider the portrayal of anger, or more accurately the portrayal of the limits of anger. Katsa is often angry, and her anger is always justified; her world is filled with injustices, and not just ones that afflict her personally. But her anger is also often problematic — “She must guard against using her Grace in anger”, she realises. “This was where her nature’s struggle lay” (94) — usually for the specific reason that it clouds sight, and leads to rash action. We are never allowed to doubt that impulsiveness, action by instinct, is a vital part of Katsa — again, probably innate, thanks to her Grace, as much as learned — but though it solves problems, such solutions are never fully satisfactory. (And towards the end of the book, one of the signs that a particular King is Good is his insistence that Katsa goes slow, thinks first, doesn’t rush in.) It is a somewhat refreshing approach, and one of the relatively few aspects of the book where Cashore does more than simply colour within the lines.
Many Graces, of course, turn out to be more subtle in their action than they first appear, and subject to change over time, with implications for both Katsa and Po’s sense of identity. But the true nature of Po’s Grace, when it is explicated, late in the book, is not a surprise. He begins to sense the physical world, as well as living creatures:
“And then, in the cave, with the soldiers shouting outside and my body so cold I thought I would bite off my own tongue with my chattering teeth — I found it, Katsa.”
He stopped talking, and he was quiet for so long that she wondered if he’d forgotten what he’d been saying.
“What did you find?”
He turned his head to her, surprised. “Clarity”, he said. (323)
In its best, purest moments, Graceling is like this: a revelation that lights the darkness.
It was a burnished, cloudless day with a tug-of-war wind, a fine day for flying. And so Raglan Skein left his body neatly laid out on his bed, its breath as slow as sea swell, and took to the sky. (1)
– but because what it’s describing is a pure kind of freedom, and sounds like fun. And Hardinge doesn’t let it rest there. Skein is a Lost, which means that he’s capable of sending all his senses off independently: “a gifted Lost might be feeling the grass under their knees, tasting the peach in your hand, overhearing a conversation in the next village and smelling cooking in the next town, all while watching barracudas dapple and brisk around a shipwreck ten miles out to see” (1). Just imagine the possibilities. Hardinge does, both for humans and for other animals. Also found on Gullstruck is a species called the farsight fish, which possesses Lost-like abilities and is thus “notoriously difficult to catch because it was almost impossible to take by surprise” (37); though if you do catch it you can borrow its ability for a short period, leading to a rather Douglas Adams-ish observation about the problem of gulls who have feasted on farsight flesh getting confused, thinking they can still see around mist when they can’t, and flying into a cliff.
Hardinge is playing with us in another way here, though, because Raglan Skein isn’t the protagonist of Gullstruck Island. Who is? It might be the girl on whom Skein spies: Arilou, “the most important person” in her village, and “arguably the only excuse for its existence” (4). Arilou is a Lost too, the first born to the Lace — a coastal-dwelling tribe — in over fifty years, and approaching the age where her abilities are due to be formally tested. There is always the danger, with an untrained Lost child, that their senses will wander off, never to be fully reunited. But when they are trained, the Lost are vital, forming a sort of living communication network for Gullstruck, and (in the form of the Lost Council) mediating between the various peoples living on the island. Gullstruck is a messy place; the diverse cultures of the island’s native tribes have, for generations now, been subordinate to the impositions of Cavalcaste settlers — despite the settlers’ stubborn lack of adaptation to the requirements of their new home, in their stubborn retention of inappropriate clothing, in their too-tall buildings, and their outdated laws. (There are no exact historical parallels, but the Gullstruck natives are something like South Pacific islanders, and the Cavalcaste are something like Northern Europeans.) Given the relative lack of space, at this point almost everybody on the island is mixed-race — Hardinge’s word is mestizo — but it’s the Cavalcaste traditions that dominate, particularly their ancestor-worship. So having a Lost in the village is, indeed, a good thing; it brings respect, influence, possibly wealth, all things the Lace have lost. Unfortunately, the secret the village keeps from the outside world is that Arilou may be a lost Lost, her senses hopelessly scattered; or she may be a Lost and mentally damaged in some way; or she may not be a Lost at all.
So Arilou isn’t the protagonist either. Maybe it’s the girl we meet at the start of the first chapter proper –
On the beach, a gull-storm erupted as rocks came bouncing down from the clifftop. Half a step behind the rocks scrambled Eiven, her face flushed from running. (5)
Eiven looks like good protagonist material. She is bold, agile, and confident; she brings news of the arrival of the Lost Inspector, and sets off the preparations for his visit.
And then she pretty much disappears from the narrative. We are being played with, again. There is, admittedly, a clue; the narrative spots a girl who escapes Skein’s notice, “anonymous as dust”, and boldly informs us that “you have already met her, or somebody very like her, and you cannot remember her at all” (4). But it’s another fifteen pages or so before we actually get to meet Hathin, who turns out to stay at the centre of the narrative for most of the rest of the novel’s thirty-nine chapters. First we meet Minchard Prox, assistant to the Lost Inspector, and it’s through his eyes that we learn Hathin is Arilou’s sister, minder and translator. The Lace cover story is that Arilou’s slurred speech is the result of incomplete control of her body (not an uncommon problem for untrained Lost), and only Hathin can understand her. The reality is that Hathin is making it up as she goes, and she’s going to need all her wits to trick the Lost Inspector into thinking Arilou can pass the tests he’s going to set.
Oops. Played again. That is what happens next; but it’s also a distraction, marking time until the real plot snaps into action. Skein dies mid-way through the tests. Soon enough it becomes clear that every other Lost on the island has also died — except Arilou. At first it seems that this will be a benefit to the Lace, a chance to regain some respect and importance. Of course, all too quickly, suspicions are turned against the Lace: did they kill the Lost? They stood to gain. The village is destroyed, and Hathin flees with Arilou across the inland volcanoes. A quest is born: to escape, to clear the name of the Lace, and to bring the true culprits to justice. Hence, presumably, the rather naff title of the US edition: The Lost Conspiracy.
At that point things get a bit more predictable (making it a sort of inversion of Hardinge’s first novel, Fly by Night); but in the end you don’t read Gullstruck Island for the plot. You don’t even read it for the characters who, though appealing, and inter-related in complex and satisfying ways (Hathin and Arilou’s relationship is beautifully developed), are not that deeply rendered. You read it to be enchanted by Hardinge’s voice, whether whimsical or deadly serious, or both at once:
Despite her high status, Milady Page usually spoke Nundestruth. It was nobody’s language, everybody’s language, a stew of words taken from the tribes and the Cavalcaste alike. By the time the first settlers’ grandchildren were full-grown, they found that however carefully they taught their own children their ancestral tongue, the children caught the hybrid chatter in the streets and brought it home like mud on their boots. “That gibberish may be good for the fields and the beach but Not Under This Roof!” the parents cried, only succeeding in giving the new language its name. Proper-speak, the old colonial language, earned the nickname “Doorsy”, indoors-speak. (28)
Most of the time, Hardinge writes in a kind of Nundestruth; resolutely playful in her descriptions, fearlessly indulging in rhyme (“Like many Gullstruck officials he was both well-heeled and bell-heeled”, 9), or cranky repetition (Port Suddenwind, the largest Cavalcaste town, is a “creaking clockwork of laws, laws, laws”, 26), or alliterative chapter titles (“Twisted Tongues”, “Farsight Flesh”, “Trial and Trickery”, “Heat Haze”). But she’s equally competent in Doorsy, when the situation calls for it: “And so ended the conference of the invisible, in the cavern of blood and secrets, on the night of the mist” (43). It is in no way as neat a novel as Graceling (a quite Doorsy book), but it makes of its freedom a strength: it finds joy and pride in its messiness, in the messiness of the things it describes.
Everything is alive, in Gullstruck Island. “Thunder rolled unseen cannonballs across the sky” (69); “the little clock gnawed away the hours” (111); “flames flung loving, golden arms around the summer-roasted palm thatch” (123). And there are the volcanoes that define Gullstruck’s geography and are, to the tribes such as the Lace, the true powers on the island. These are wonderfully handled: clearly, meticulously researched, but gifted with their own personalities that aid and abet Hathin and Arilou on their journey, from cranky Mother Tooth to mad Lord Crackgem, and the jealous love triangle that is Sorrow and her two suitors, Lord Spearhead and the King of Fans. So much in Gullstruck Island rests on who and what you see as living and worthy of respect, as distinct and individual. For the Lace, the answer is just about everyone and everything; the Cavalcaste are distorted by their fixation on the dead. And in the novel’s darkest moments, the islanders cease being individuals altogether, and become something else: “Mob wasn’t people. It took people and folded their faces like paper” (278).
This is, ultimately, the only real source of disappointment in the book. Gullstruck Island is a light address to serious topics — the hatred stirred up against the Lace in the wake of the Lost deaths is not new, it is an awakening of an old, ingrained prejudice, exploited by the story’s villains. (Who, if doubt remained, are Bad News either because they actively dislike the mess of diversity that characterises Gullstruck, or because their preference for order, their aversion to play, enables them to be twisted into malicious tools.) Hathin’s campaign to right the scales leads her down a dark path, swearing a vengeance that it is very clear could break her, that does in some ways immediately break her. All of this is good: that you don’t put a bunch of volcanoes on the mantel in Act I if you’re not going to do something with them in Act III does not make the ending too neat. What does, unfortunately, is the reduction of people to Mob, because it allows problems to be solved too easily. It’s too great a contrast with Hathin’s spirited individualism (no romance here); it’s not just that it allows there to be a spider at the centre of the web, but that it allows removal of the spider to leave the world a better place. This is, of course, marvellously freeing; the end of the novel is full of messy freedoms — “true joy, like true pain, does not care how it looks or sounds” (487) — and puts Hathin in a position to be whatever she wants to be. But freedom from the ancestor-worship of the Cavalcaste even becomes, it seems, freedom from history: and that’s a freedom too far for me.
There is some discussion of the ease with which groups of people can be manipulated in The Ask & The Answer, too. “A man is capable of thought”, one character notes. “A crowd is not” (120). It’s a sentiment that acquires new force in the context of Chaos Walking, for a couple of reasons. One is that the series is set on New World, a planet on which all men, and all active fauna, constantly broadcast their thoughts as Noise. (This includes the sentient Spackle, for whom it is the only method of communication, but not women, who remain exempt — at least for this, the middle book of the trilogy. Since it is pointedly noted, without explanation, that this fact sets humans apart from every other species on the planet — female animals have Noise — presumably further developments will be forthcoming in volume three.) The second reason is that if Patrick Ness has a Grace, it is for manipulation; like The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask & The Answer is staggeringly effective at guiding the responses of its readers, at controlling the flow of information and shaping raw events into irresistable story.
We start out with protagonists Todd and Viola in the power of the series villain, Mayor Prentiss, who has brought the largest town on New World under his sway, and is keen to use the excuse of Noise to institute full-scale segregation of men and women. As he puts it, so carefully and reluctantly: “The borders between men and women had become blurred, and the reintroduction of those borders is a slow and painful process […] but the important thing to remember is, as I’ve said, the war is over” (130). You might be forgiven for thinking, just briefly, that he’s right. The council of what was once Haven, and is now New Prentisstown, did after all vote to submit to the Mayor’s authority because they didn’t want more war, because they decided that capitulation was the best way to save lives. The deposed chair defends the decision: “Not everything is black and white, Todd. In fact, almost nothing is” (36).
Yet what happens in The Ask & The Answer seems black enough. Crudely put, it is the first steps towards building Gilead. Todd and Viola are split up, and the narrative splits with them. Todd is kept alive for the potential the Mayor sees in him, and assigned to oversee the management of a contingent of Spackle prisoners — previously used as servants by the inhabitants of Haven, they are now locked up together, and kept docile through the application of a “cure” for Noise. Viola, meanwhile, is kept alive for the information the Mayor thinks he can get out of her, about the incoming second wave of colonists, and locked up in one of the town’s Houses of Healing with the other women.
The bond between Todd and Viola is — of course — unbreakable, but both are, to an extent, seduced by the crowds they find themselves associating with. Viola becomes part of The Answer, originally set up as an all-female — and thus silent — combat unit in the Spackle war, now reformed as a a Carhullan Army waging a bombing campaign on New Prentisstown. (It’s interesting to note how completely normal it is, both for the novel and for its characters, that the women fight and can fight; there is no amazement on anyone’s part, not even any pointed remarks. The Mayor’s misogyny is not grounded in thinking women weak, in other words; nor does it seem to be grounded in wanting to control their bodies. It seems, instead, to be grounded in the fact that, without Noise, he cannot control them.) Todd, on the other hand, finds himself trying to rationalise the actions his new position forces him into — better he’s the one to implement the latest restriction on Spackle freedom, because at least he cares a little — all the while being shaped by the Mayor’s insistent thoughts, which, he tells us, “hatched right in the middle of my brain, like a worm in an apple” (207). Todd’s sense of self — always fragile, in Noise — starts to deteriorate, and worse, to be consciously repressed.
Even leaving aside the narrative split, The Ask & The Answer is thus a very different book from its predecessor. It’s still told in forthright Nundestruth (Viola’s voice is a bit more Doorsy than Todd’s, but not dramatically so), but a headlong chase is replaced with a slow accumulation of intensity; a tour of New World is replaced with a close focus on New Prentisstown; and an unpeeling of the truth of the world is replaced — other than in a couple of broad hints such as the one noted above — by a concern with the manipulation of truth, how lies become truth in the first place. (The Mayor’s ability to manipulate Noise is, it is clear, an ability to manipulate truth, an ability to make lies true not a million miles from that possessed by Bad King Leck.) It is still, fear not, a quite extraordinarily absorbing story, one of those books you inhale more than read; and though it is (inevitably) a less tidy book than The Knife of Never Letting Go, I think it perhaps more penetrating.
We are the choices we make: nothing more, nothing less. That’s what the Mayor tells Todd in the book’s opening scene, and what Mistress Coyle, head of the Answer, tells Viola somewhat later. Even choices we think we have to make are choices, this book says: rationalizations are just that. And individuals are, in fact, as vulnerable as crowds, if not more so. But this is not to say — despite the insistences of several characters — that there are no right and wrong moves, no black and white to be found in this novel. Todd and Viola’s complicity in the actions of the Mayor and of The Answer is pushed just about as far as it can go; to follow their progress through this book is to watch them make choices, to understand why they make those choices, and yet to know that the choices they make are wrong. The novel insists that what matters is not how you fall down, but how you pick yourself up again; but Viola and to an even greater extent Todd, fall a long way in this book.
The Mayor’s actions are unambiguously black from the get-go, and it becomes increasingly obvious as the novel wears on that Mistress Coyle’s tactics are just as unforgivable. The thing is that they are, both of them, plausible kinds of wrongness, ones that exist, with all their seductive and coercive potency, in our world as much as in that of Chaos Walking. What is hard is not identifying them as wrong, but finding and acting on the right and the good in the face of their existence, and their tendency to grapple each other in violent, escalating feedback loops. This is something Ness gets right that I think the other two books discussed above don’t quite manage. The Mayor is ultimately as cartoonish as Leck, and he’s on screen for a whole lot longer. This seems like a weakness. But in fact his one-dimenstionality matters less, because it’s so clear that he’s merely the visible tip of an iceberg. Leck’s ideas may be insidious, but they’ve got nothing on the prejudices into which the Mayor taps and to which he gives form. By the end of The Ask & The Answer, Todd and Viola have demonstrated that the Mayor can be defeated, but they’re left to face the world the Mayor has wrought: left to face, in other words, the Mayor’s ideology. There’s more than one war that needs to be won in Monsters of Men.