Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go

Posted: December 1, 2010 by in Books We Like (4/5 single_star) Meta: Patrick Ness, Dystopian SF, Young Adult, Reviews by Rob

THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness (Amazon) is one of those wonderfully deceiving Young Adult books that reminds us all of the days when there was no such thing. It’s a simple story…in a gritty, continually plot-twisted, thought provoking and emotional thrill-ride kind of way.

I could simply call it a story about a boy and his dog, or boy meets girl, or coming of age…but then I’d have to mention that the dog talks, the girl is seemingly the only one on the planet, and that being a man isn’t exactly something worth envying here.

You see, Todd Hewitt is the last boy in his town on a colonized planet where biological warfare with the alien natives killed all women and caused all men and creatures on the planet to have their thoughts projected out loud in a jumbled “noise”. It’s worse than it sounds, however, because as Todd tells us, “The first thing you find out when your dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.” And when Todd finally discovers the girl, it results in a race for their lives, because there’s more to this world—and Todd’s town—than meets the eye.

I was worried when I first heard of the book. The setting is nothing unique—it’s practically the same old tired European world we see in traditional fantasy, with just a hint of western thrown in (the western aspects were what kept me hopeful). The concept doesn’t sound too complicated (so thoughts aren’t private. Meh.) The main character is a young boy with a dog…nothing really new there either (I’ve read enough variations of ‘Old Yeller’, thank you). But from the very first line I was hooked. What really makes this story (the first in a series) fly, is the writing. Ness not only maintains the mystery, the conflict, the emotion, the world concepts, and the narrative voice here, he amplifies it. I can’t count the number of times I shouted out, mid-read, “that could not have just happened.”

Then there’s the depth of the concepts. The ideas of what makes a man, morality of thought, violence, and gender differences are all raked through the coals. It could have been easy–especially in yet another young adult offering–to simply let the concepts become a splash of paint on the backdrop… but THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO is meant to provoke you.

THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO may be YA, but it's different and enjoyable, along the lines of LORD OF THE FLIES.

Even the flaws–valid though they are–can be offset. The novel isn’t a satisfactory stand alone but ends in a cliffhanger, but that’s made moot by the fact that all three novels of the Chaos Walking trilogy are all out in print. The first person present tense that usually runs rampant in YA (often a crutch to help poor writers have an easy way to share character emotion and help readers have empathy with characters) is used to its full and proper effect. Instead of the character “confiding” in his emotions, we can feel them because of the writing, not the tense–and the emotions are deep and powerful here as well. Then there’s the young adult direction of the book, which is reminiscent of Reeve’s Hungry City Chronicles. But while some revelations are revealed later than they could be, and the character’s are a bit naive, Young Adult is really just a label here. It’s even a more adult read than Reeve’s works. Characters in this book kill (and brutally too), but in a way that invites young adults to the adult world of literature. Conceptually, it isn’t as grim as The Hunger Games, but it comes off as far more gritty due to the depth of character and emotion–which ultimately leads to a more powerful read.

While everyone loves a good fantasy, epic, gritty, or otherwise, THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO reads like a modern SF/Fantasy CATCHER IN THE RYE, or THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN which only enhances its flavor. No, it isn’t epic in its fullest sense. There’s only the single POV (in this first book, anyway), and the conflicts aren’t global (again, in this first book, anyway), but there’s a more personal, intimate connection for the reader here.

If you want something different as well as something enjoyable, as only the SF/Fantasy Elite do on occasion–and you can handle the smallest hint of YA–give it a try. It’s good to see that Young Adult isn’t just full of Harry Potter or Twilight retread, but can still give something along the lines of Fahrenheit 451 or Lord of the Flies (the closest thing to Young Adult some of us older Elitists got).

  • Recommended Age: 14+
  • Language: Hells, Damns and occasional references to female dogs. Many “I didn’t say fudge” moments, though.
  • Violence: Yes. Murder and beatings—though it’s tense, it isn’t graphic.
  • Sex: A tiny bit of innuendo—thoughts are public knowledge, after all


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