It’s a strong story. Well written, does what it’s supposed to do, it’s engaging and its flaws, technically speaking, are few and mostly irrelevant, they don’t spoil the... well. I was going to say “the fun”, but there’s no fun in this story. It’s like watching a movie about a man who kicks puppies... a marvellously directed one. You can’t call it a bad movie, but you can’t say you liked it, either. He kicks puppies. I have to wonder how Ness stayed sane while writing such a dark and gloomy story.
While in the first book we only had Todd’s point of view, in this one Viola gets her own pages, and it works well in that both parts are told in first person present tense, and Todd wasn’t very useful when it came to understanding Viola. And they’re separated most of the time, so we get to see what’s going on in different places at the same time.
The book hinges on Todd’s and Viola relationship, and their attempt to go on trusting each other despite the circumstances making it extremely difficult. Prentiss separates them, and while the two kids try to get back together every chance they get, both Prentiss and his enemy, the healer-turned-revolutionary Mistress Coyle, exploit this desire to get (or try to get) what they want, namely, control over Haven/Prentisstown.
They’re both prisoners, Todd more so than Viola, finding himself controlled and manoeuvred by Prentiss, who wants him to work with him in exchange for Viola’s safety. And Todd does. He does, in fact, everything Prentiss tells him to, and what he anticipates he’ll do, even. He does terrible things and avoids doing brave things, doesn’t even consider doing them, all the while telling himself he’s doing it to keep her safe. More than what he did, it’s what he didn’t even try to do that bothered me. All his altruistic acts are born in moments of frenzy and instincts, but never do we see Todd truly look at his days under Prentiss’ orders and wonder if the end justifies the means. And that’s where things went wrong for me.
I was expecting him to grow up. In the first novel he was a scared, disoriented boy trying to get back to safety after the whole world had gone and turned itself on him. He did terrible things there as well, he murdered a Spackle out of fear, and I was expecting this to be developed and used and exploited in the second book, while developing the theme of relating oneself to those who are “the Other”, and of guilt and atonement and responsibility. I wanted to see Todd grow into a man.
Well, he did grow. Just into something I didn’t like very much. I mean, by the end of the book I liked Davy-bloody-Prentiss better than him.
Ness faces some huge themes without shying away from them: slavery, genocide, how the pressure of society (or charismatic individuals) can bring people to act against their beliefs, or how one will do terrible things in exchange for personal safety and survival. And yet, I’m not sure that “faces” is the correct term. Because these are huge themes, worth exploring deeply, and seeing how it all comes out in this novel does not convince me it was handled very well.
I’d recommend this book because, despite all its flaws, it keeps you reading until the end and right into the next one, without giving you a moment of rest. It makes you think and it doesn’t care very much if you empathize or sympathize with its main characters (though I suspect a lot of people still do, if only because they’re kids). It’s well written and doesn’t waste time in useless scenes, and some of the secondary characters are very interesting. Just keep in mind that it’ll be like someone is kicking you in the shins the whole time, because it’s not a pleasant read. Bad things happen in it, and it doesn’t give you the comfort of “being on the right side”, no matter whose narrative you’re reading. The nicest character in the story is Todd’s horse (but love her at your peril, and I sure said “no thanks” after Manchee. Just to be on the safe side). The horse and possibly Wilf.