I did it! Last night I stayed up LATE and finished Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness – book 3 in the Chaos Walking Trilogy.
First let me just WOW for a moment.
Really, this whole series was remarkable – the issues it delved into, the points of view it explored. After book 2, I was expecting to just sort of ride out book 3, enjoying it but not being astounded, because really, how do you top the first two books.
Well – Patrick Ness did it. He blew my mind – again.
So, a brief recap – Book 1, The Knife of Never Letting Go grapples with The Woman Question in a really interesting way, by plopping us into a world where men have Noise – all of their thoughts & feelings are broadcast 24-7 into the world. Women… don’t. Women are Quiet. It also takes a look at a world without women, a world where all of the women have been killed off and only men are left. And of course, it asks the question – how do you keep a secret when every thought you have is broadcast!?
Book 2, The Ask and the Answer delves into even deeper philosophical questions. While it continues to explore and examine gender and sexism and preconceived notions about women and men, it also forces us to examine our ideas of violence, especially violence for a cause. What is the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary? When is it too much, too far? At what point do the good guys cross the line and become just as bad as the forces they’re trying to defeat?
And now, book 3, Monsters of Men… There were SO many deep thoughts in this book, so many opportunities to look at the world from a fresh angle, I had to put it down several times just to ponder and wallow in the new perspective.
As you know, in book 2 I was blown away when Viola, The Girl, got her voice – got her own POV sections.
This book rocked my world again when Patrick Ness added another POV, the voice of one of the Spackle (the indigenous people of New World.) called The Return because he lived with the humans but returned to the Spackle.
This new perspective helped broaden the reader’s understanding of the world – and of OUR world. Because how often are we encouraged, allowed really, to identify with “The Enemy”? How often are we invited to see that they are people too – just like us. And they too are fighting for what is right and just and fair…
The title for this book came from a quote in book 2, that war makes monsters of men (and women – as is noted in this book). And we see how that happens, how each impossible choice seems like the right thing, the only thing… But in the end, war only leads to more war. Violence begets violence. And as trust is broken down and worn thin it gets harder and harder to put the guns down and back away and apologize and wage peace.
Todd, our protagonist from book 1, is told that war is makes men out of boys. His sometimes enemy, sometimes mentor (Have I mentioned how much I LOVE the complexity, moral dubiousness and realness of the characters?) very much wants Todd to go to war, to become a Man, to learn to relish the fight, the win, the power.
When Todd gets his first real taste of war, he responds,
Is this what war is?
Is this what men want so much?
Is this sposed to make them men?
Death coming at you with a roar and a scream so fast you can’t do nothing about it-
Later, he gets his first taste of winning, and his perspective changes,
I ride after him, gun up, but not shooting, just watching and feeling -
Feeling the thrill of it-
Cuz that’s it-
That’s the nasty, nasty secret of war-
When yer winning-
When yer winning, it’s effing thrilling-
Throughout the book we watch Todd struggle to balance his internal desire for peace against the external thrills of war and winning and power. His internal conflicts around wanting to make the world safe and peaceful for His Viola while being told that the only path to peace is through war… That conflict helps carry the book. It forces Todd to make impossible choices, ugly choices. It forces him to wrestle with his own monsters, as he tries to remain a man.
He must weigh all the good that is in him against the ugly necessities of war…
One of the other really interesting questions Monsters of Men raises is the question of how much we should/can/do value a life, a single life. Is any one person worth the lives of hundreds, thousands of others? Yes, to each of us we have a person – a “one in particular” (Thank you Patrick Ness for that new designation, it sounds SO much better than partner which always felt businesslike and sterile to me. I like it better than “significant other” too, because there’s that other thing again. My one in particular isn’t an other, he’s part of me… But I digress…) Anyway, we all have our one in particular (some of us have more – children, parents, siblings, BFFS, etc.) who we would potentially kill for, or die for. Who, in the right (horribly wrong) circumstances, perhaps start a war for…
To us, that one person is worth “whatever it takes.”
But those people who die because we do it, don’t they have people who’d kill for them?
So who’s right?
And this is where the voice of the Return, the Spackle, as well as the voice of Viola really stretch our conscience as they each must decide what is more important, one life – or many. One life or war. One life or peace.
What is any single life worth?
“They’ll kill your boy,” Mistress Coyle says, like she’s reading my mind. “No two ways about it this time.”
And she can see my face-
See me thinking it-
Thinking it again-
Thinking about all that death.
“No,” I whisper. “We can’t-”
A final note – you all already know that these books rank high in my Feminist reading list. Book three introduced, or perhaps simply confirmed, another social justice element that is important to me.
In speaking of his “one in particular”, we learn that the POV Spackle, The Return, is gay. And… It’s no big deal. He had talked about wanting children and a family with his one in particular, talked about their relationship and their love. And like many heterosexuals, I assumed his one in particular was therefore female. But then in a moment of terrifying grief, we see his one in particular and we learn that he was male. It was slipped in, just subtly. But it was there. And there wasn’t a big deal made about it, which was sort of refreshing. It wasn’t a Thing, it just was – as it is.
Also, Todd’s adoptive dads are referred to as each other’s “ones in particular” and the lightbulb went off that, yeah – Todd was raised by two men. In book one I hadn’t batted an eye, because there were no women. But… two men. Not one. Two men who were together before there were no women. Two men living together, not just farming together… Again, it was subtle and not a Thing, it just was. Two men, living, loving and raising a child together – so naturally it slipped right under my generally aware radar.
This brief ah-ha! also made me wonder about this whole men have Noise and women are Quiet thing and start wondering if that was a gender thing, or a sex thing? After all, only human women are Quiet – the female spackle and female animals all have Voices (as the spackle put it). I wonder, what would happen with a transgender human? Would their Noise be determined by their genitalia, or their internal gender?
Something Patrick Ness could perhaps explore if he should ever decide to make his trilogy into a tetralogy – after all, those 5,000 new colonists are about to land and shake everything up again! (Fan fiction piece anyone…!?!)
If you haven’t picked these books up because they are in the Young Adult section – don’t let that fool you. The writing, the philosophy, the deep, deep questions they encourage us to explore and confront are way beyond what many people think of as teen reading. And if you do pick these books up, add one more layer of reflection as you read them – if these books were marketed to teens… could it be possible that teens are capable of so much more thought and consideration than our society often gives them credit for?!? Is it perhaps possible that we have been underestimating and undervaluing our teens, and that maybe, just maybe, we should step out of their way a little and let them wow us with their abilities?
For the record, these books will be featuring heavily in my discussion on gender representation in Young Adult fiction which I am presenting at this year’s Colorado Teen Literature Conference in April. Registration is open if you’d like to join me in being amazed and impressed with the intellect of Colorado’s youth.