The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

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At the end of The Knife of Never Letting Go, we left Todd cradling a bleeding Viola in his arms. She's been shot. And Todd has led her right into the hands of his nemesis, Mayor Prentiss. Haven isn't a haven; it's surrendered to the Mayor's army and is well on its way to becoming New Prentisstown. And the Mayor's no longer a mayor. He's a president.

Todd and Viola are separated - but then so are all the men and women. President Prentiss isn't so keen on women and he has a very clear idea of his new order. It's full of brutality and oppression and it turns Todd's stomach. But to protect Viola, he'll do almost anything, including supervising a Spackle labour camp. Equally isolated from Todd and her moral compass, Viola must choose between healing and rebellion. And when the bombs start to go off, the battle between the ask and the answer forces its way between and into the bond between the two of them.

I read The Ask and the Answer in one very breathless sitting and went to bed far too late that night. I really couldn't have asked for a more thrilling read. Mayor Prentiss and his opponents are fighting to become the controlling influence on the planet before the next wave of settlers arrive, and they don't have much time. What begins as a cat-and-mouse game accelerates quickly into a full-scale conflict with all the moral sacrifices that entails. Todd, trapped in New Prentisstown and forced to work for the Mayor, can see the dreadful effects of terrorism. Viola, on the other hand, can see the brutality of the Mayor's oppression. Both protagonists are victims of propaganda and they both struggle to see a path that seemed so clear when they were together.

But underneath the action, there's a love story of such piercing sweetness going on that it fairly breaks your heart. I fell completely under its spell. It's a subtle and mature love story too, with the doubts and crises all adolescents will recognise (all adults too), but it also has a great honesty about it. Ness isn't afraid to show his readers that we can love and still look outside that love for possibilities, as Viola finds when she meets Lee.

I love this world where thoughts aren't private and can become both weapons and tools of oppression. I love the way Noise adds layers of honesty and dishonesty to what's going on. I love dystopian fiction and I'm always seduced by the idea of future regression, so it ticks all my boxes and I'm completely spellbound by the whole thing. I missed Manchee, the scatalogical dog from book one, but by the end I'd become rather fond of Todd's horse Angharrad - boy colt, boy colt - and even fonder of Todd. This is a tremendously subtle dystopian novel about power and control and love and loyalty, and I liked it even better than The Knife of Never Letting Go.

And I'm quietly rooting for the Spackle!

My thanks to the nice people at Walker for sending the book.

An equally pacy and enjoyable look, if slightly less subtle, at a pretty awful future can be found in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Crowboy by David Calcutt envisages a much more industrial dystopia and has touches of magic realism. Younger readers might enjoy The Sky Inside by Clare B Dunkle. Adults shouldn't miss The Pesthouse by Jim Crace.

Booklists.jpg The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness is in the Booktrust Teenage Prize 2009.

Booklists.jpg The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness is in the Carnegie Medal Shortlist 2010.

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