I have often had this book recommended to me as a small classic of YA sf in the subcategories of post-apocalyptic, psychic kids, and Australian. It was written in 1987, when there wasn't quite such a glut of psychic kid and post-apocalyptic YA as accumulated later on. But it was still unimpressive.

As is explained in prologue of infodump, after a nuclear war, mutations and science were banned. Mutants can be executed or exiled if caught.

Teenage Elspeth is a telepathic mutant who can read minds, force people to do her bidding, and communicate with animals. She also has other extremely powerful abilities which are revealed later, when it's convenient for her to be able to unlock doors and kill people with her brain. Despite these abilities, her family has been executed and she is in a precarious position, under threat of death if her talents are discovered. Her brother, a teenage total jerk, has a somewhat higher status for reasons I forget and is not very helpful to her.

She ends up exiled to a prison/lab/boarding house for teenage mutants. There she is forced to slave in the kitchens, while sinister experiments are going on off-page. This section occupies about two-thirds of the book, and it felt like absolutely nothing was going on.

I was mostly bored by the book. Elspeth has very little personality. In fact, the only character with personality is a stray cat. Though a summary of events would make it seem like exciting things are happening, they are often narrated rather than shown, and are so underdeveloped that the sense is that nothing is happening. Dullsville.

Obernewtyn: The Obernewtyn Chronicles 1
The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say.

About anything.

"Need a poo, Todd."

"Shut up, Manchee."

"Poo. Poo, Todd."

"I said shut it."

We're walking across the wild fields south-east of town, those ones that slope down to the river and head on towards the swamp. Ben's sent me to pick him some swamp apples and he's made me take Manchee with me, even tho we all know Cillian only bought him to stay on Mayor Prentiss's good side and so suddenly here's this brand new dog as a present for my birthday last year when I never said I wanted any dog, that what I said I wanted was for Cillian to finally fix the fissionbike so I wouldn't have to walk every forsaken place in this stupid town, but oh, no, happy birthday, Todd, here's a brand new puppy, Todd, and even tho you don't want him, even tho you never asked for him, guess who has to feed him and train him and wash him and take him for walks and listen to him jabber now he's got old enough for the talking germ to set his mouth moving? Guess who?

"Poo," Manchee barks quietly to himself. "Poo, poo, poo."


If that doesn't make you want to read the book, I feel for you as I do for the sad people who do not like molten chocolate cake.

This is a novel best read knowing nothing about it beyond what is revealed in the first chapter: on a planet where germ warfare with the now-extinct indigenous species wiped out the female human settlers, and made the men and animals involuntary projecting telepaths, the last boy in the last settlement, 13-year-old Todd Hewitt, is about to legally become a man. In a maelstrom of telepathic Noise, Todd is about to discover something amazing: silence.

The Knife of Never Letting Go, in addition to its distinctive but easily read voice and clever take on telepathy, is most notable for incredible narrative drive. It is genuinely difficult to put down, once picked up. I suggest that you don't start reading it late at night.

Though my overall impression was genius! oh hell it's a series! dammit, I have to wait a year for the next one! I do have some caveats.

1. It ends on a truly impressive cliffhanger.

2. While major themes of the book are the difficulty of knowing the truth even in a world of telepaths, the secrets adults keep from children, and the painful courage it takes to break through denial and lies that are more comforting than the truth... Ness still overuses the device of having characters know information they don't tell the other characters, the narrator knowing things he doesn't tell the reader, and important information that doesn't get revealed because someone suddenly attacks at the crucial moment.

3. The shocking reveals would have actually been more shocking if they'd been put earlier. They were put off so long and so artificially that I accurately figured out all of them, and even the details of all but one, by the time they were revealed. (I guessed the general outline of how boys become men in Prentisstown, but not the specifics.)

4. Aaron seemed to have wandered in from Friday the Thirteenth.

That being said, this was one of the best and probably the most gripping book I've read all year. It's funny, it's dark, it's a lesson in suspense. I came to love all the main characters, even Manchee the poo-obsessed dog. Maybe especially Manchee.

Feel free to put spoilers in comments.

There's a longer extract from the first chapter here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/sep/06/childrensprize.patrickness
The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say.

About anything.

"Need a poo, Todd."

"Shut up, Manchee."

"Poo. Poo, Todd."

"I said shut it."

We're walking across the wild fields south-east of town, those ones that slope down to the river and head on towards the swamp. Ben's sent me to pick him some swamp apples and he's made me take Manchee with me, even tho we all know Cillian only bought him to stay on Mayor Prentiss's good side and so suddenly here's this brand new dog as a present for my birthday last year when I never said I wanted any dog, that what I said I wanted was for Cillian to finally fix the fissionbike so I wouldn't have to walk every forsaken place in this stupid town, but oh, no, happy birthday, Todd, here's a brand new puppy, Todd, and even tho you don't want him, even tho you never asked for him, guess who has to feed him and train him and wash him and take him for walks and listen to him jabber now he's got old enough for the talking germ to set his mouth moving? Guess who?

"Poo," Manchee barks quietly to himself. "Poo, poo, poo."


If that doesn't make you want to read the book, I feel for you as I do for the sad people who do not like molten chocolate cake.

This is a novel best read knowing nothing about it beyond what is revealed in the first chapter: on a planet where germ warfare with the now-extinct indigenous species wiped out the female human settlers, and made the men and animals involuntary projecting telepaths, the last boy in the last settlement, 13-year-old Todd Hewitt, is about to legally become a man. In a maelstrom of telepathic Noise, Todd is about to discover something amazing: silence.

The Knife of Never Letting Go, in addition to its distinctive but easily read voice and clever take on telepathy, is most notable for incredible narrative drive. It is genuinely difficult to put down, once picked up. I suggest that you don't start reading it late at night.

Though my overall impression was genius! oh hell it's a series! dammit, I have to wait a year for the next one! I do have some caveats.

1. It ends on a truly impressive cliffhanger.

2. While major themes of the book are the difficulty of knowing the truth even in a world of telepaths, the secrets adults keep from children, and the painful courage it takes to break through denial and lies that are more comforting than the truth... Ness still overuses the device of having characters know information they don't tell the other characters, the narrator knowing things he doesn't tell the reader, and important information that doesn't get revealed because someone suddenly attacks at the crucial moment.

3. The shocking reveals would have actually been more shocking if they'd been put earlier. They were put off so long and so artificially that I accurately figured out all of them, and even the details of all but one, by the time they were revealed. (I guessed the general outline of how boys become men in Prentisstown, but not the specifics.)

4. Aaron seemed to have wandered in from Friday the Thirteenth.

That being said, this was one of the best and probably the most gripping book I've read all year. It's funny, it's dark, it's a lesson in suspense. I came to love all the main characters, even Manchee the poo-obsessed dog. Maybe especially Manchee.

Feel free to put spoilers in comments.

There's a longer extract from the first chapter here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/sep/06/childrensprize.patrickness
In the morning, we walk side by side up the long hill to school, as usual… As though that day never happened. Chise is as slow as ever. Without comment, I shorten my stride and let her catch up… So the distance between us won’t grow.

Shuji is an emotionally immature teenage boy, awkward and cloddish the way teenage boys can be. Chise is a shy slow girl who’s immature in every respect. They start dating, more for practice than because they like each other in particular, and write an “exchange diary” which they trade back and forth to record their lives and feelings. Early volumes of the manga have lots of excerpts from the diary.

But then the war comes to their peaceful town. Chise is taken away and transformed into a cyborg angel of death, and set to work as a killing machine. (The series title is an abbreviation for the Japanese for "My girlfriend, the ultimate weapon.") She and Shuji try to keep up a semblance of normal life, going to school and worrying about whether they should have sex yet, but soon the war engulfs their town and their lives. They’re forced to make adult decisions they’re in no way ready for, and their feelings for each other slowly grow even as their relationship stays largely a matter of circumstance and the desire to have a relationship. It’s not so much that they’re in love, as that they hope that if they act as if they are, they will fall in love with each other.

This is a very odd series. The art is sketchy and Chise looks about nine most of the time, which made the sex scenes even creepier than they would have been already, given the limits to which the story pushes the connection between sex and death. In separate encounters, both Shuji and Chise end up having consensual comfort sex with someone who is dying in bloody agony. EW. Not a creepy fetish, but rather than a statement about war and the desperate grasping at life in the midst of death. Still, really disturbing.

The pace is slow and meditative. The emotions and the atmosphere feel raw and honest, and though I never really liked either Chise or Shuji, I did root for them to have their little love story before the world ended. There’s something very compelling about the story and the way it’s told that kept me reading even though I knew it couldn’t possibly end well. And sure enough…

Death, doom, despair, and a long warm red tunnel )
In the morning, we walk side by side up the long hill to school, as usual… As though that day never happened. Chise is as slow as ever. Without comment, I shorten my stride and let her catch up… So the distance between us won’t grow.

Shuji is an emotionally immature teenage boy, awkward and cloddish the way teenage boys can be. Chise is a shy slow girl who’s immature in every respect. They start dating, more for practice than because they like each other in particular, and write an “exchange diary” which they trade back and forth to record their lives and feelings. Early volumes of the manga have lots of excerpts from the diary.

But then the war comes to their peaceful town. Chise is taken away and transformed into a cyborg angel of death, and set to work as a killing machine. (The series title is an abbreviation for the Japanese for "My girlfriend, the ultimate weapon.") She and Shuji try to keep up a semblance of normal life, going to school and worrying about whether they should have sex yet, but soon the war engulfs their town and their lives. They’re forced to make adult decisions they’re in no way ready for, and their feelings for each other slowly grow even as their relationship stays largely a matter of circumstance and the desire to have a relationship. It’s not so much that they’re in love, as that they hope that if they act as if they are, they will fall in love with each other.

This is a very odd series. The art is sketchy and Chise looks about nine most of the time, which made the sex scenes even creepier than they would have been already, given the limits to which the story pushes the connection between sex and death. In separate encounters, both Shuji and Chise end up having consensual comfort sex with someone who is dying in bloody agony. EW. Not a creepy fetish, but rather than a statement about war and the desperate grasping at life in the midst of death. Still, really disturbing.

The pace is slow and meditative. The emotions and the atmosphere feel raw and honest, and though I never really liked either Chise or Shuji, I did root for them to have their little love story before the world ended. There’s something very compelling about the story and the way it’s told that kept me reading even though I knew it couldn’t possibly end well. And sure enough…

Death, doom, despair, and a long warm red tunnel )
I had originally planned to write about these novels in the same entry merely because I read them in quick succession, and also because they're both utterly obscure novels by writers who are better-known for other books, so most likely no one but me has read them. But as I began to write, I realized that they do have some interesting parallels and anti-parallels.

John Christopher is best known for the TRIPODS trilogy, an effectively terse YA series in which three-legged aliens have taken over the world and mind-controlled most of the inhabitants, and only a handful of guerillas (including our boy protagonist) can fight back. I liked those as a kid, but was frustrated by the lack of female characters who did anything but look pretty.

(In a lapse from his generally thoughtful portrayal of the aliens, he has them take strong boys as slaves and beautiful girls as museum exhibits. Why would giant green tentacled three-legged aliens think _any_ kind of girl is pretty, let alone have the same standards of human beauty that humans do?)

His other post-disaster YA trilogy, THE SWORD OF THE SPIRITS, is memorably grim, and also has no women who do anything but look pretty.

SWEENEY'S ISLAND could also be considered a post-disaster novel, but it's really in the "people stranded on an island" genre. There are two ways that story goes: either it's JONATHAN CRUSOE and they build things, or it's LORD OF THE FLIES and they kill things. If the latter, they generally begin by setting up a fascistic social order headed by a strong man who crushes intelligent but physically weak members of the society, and end by worshipping some creepy god they make up right before launching into a sexualized, ritualistic, cannibalistic killing orgy. I'm not sure why making up a god is so commonly seen as the last step before people make a complete reversion to savagery, but so it goes.

SWEENEY'S ISLAND is a pretty standard example of the "kill things" genre, livened up with some sf elements (mutant animals on the island). The women are a selection of embarrassing stereotypes: one good but weak woman who needs a male protector, one woman who almost becomes evil because she so desperately wants a baby and her caddish husband won't let her fulfill her natural instincts, one evil woman who enjoys sex and immediately attaches herself to the strong man. (Before the obligatory cannibalistic ritualistic killing orgy.) Ick.

The key difference the outcomes of these books is why the authors wanted to write an island book in the first place. Either they want to write about exploration and survival, in which case they pick an isolated area as a kind of sandbox for their heroes to play around in; or else they want to prove that the rule of law is all that keeps us from savagery, and so they pick a place where there is no law.

THE PEOPLE OF THE AX, by Jay Williams, is also about people struggling to survive in a harsh world, and cooperation vs. might makes right. But this one is good.

Jay Williams is best known for the charming Danny Dunn books, and the even more charming fantasy THE HERO FROM OTHERWHERE, which really ought to be reprinted.

I think THE PEOPLE OF THE AX was published as adult sf, but it reads YA-ish to me. Arne (a boy) and Frey (a girl) are tribal teenagers who have just been initiated as Human Beings, in a ceremony where they gain a limited power of empathy. Because of this, their people may count coup on other tribes and squabble within their own, but they don't kill each other. But another race of people, the crom, may be killed at will, for they have no empathy and thus, to Arne's people, no souls.

But when Arne discovers a crom with an iron club-- a weapon no crom should have the knowledge to make-- he and Frey are sent on a quest to find out what happened. And then a lot of cool, cleverly thought-out, and surprising stuff happens. This is quite a good book, and one which is actually thought-provoking rather than merely preachy. But good luck finding a copy-- I've only ever seen one.
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