Silence as a Sound: Politics in The Ask and the Answer

An image of a statue with a finger pressed against its mouth to signify silencing gesture. These words are atop the image: "Silence as a Sound: Patrick Ness' Exploration og Politics in The Ask and the Answer."
Image courtesy of Ernie A. Stephens on Unsplash

An Introduction

Far from falling for the middle-book-slump, Patrick Ness’s The Ask and the Answer carries the Chaos Walking series into a more serious political discussion. Unlike the first book, Viola and Todd are now on opposing sides of a war. They have to make choices on how they will fight to get things their way.

The Premise of The Ask and the Answer

In typical middle-book fashion, miscommunication dominates The Ask and the Answer. Haunted by the events of the previous book, Todd is willing to do whatever it takes to protect Viola. With this intention, Todd must work with Mayor Prentiss, who has gained more political power. He withholds vital information about Viola, and Prentiss corners Todd into total cooperation. Consequently, he promises Todd that he’ll keep Viola safe.

Afterward, Todd works under the direction of Davy Prentiss Jr. As such, readers can expect to see a closer look at Davy Prentiss Jr. Readers are up for a heartwrenching conflict.

Like Todd, Viola is an unwilling participant in a group attempting to gain political control. Warring adults battle each other to gain control of this town. As a result, Citizens are trampled. New arrivals are on the horizon as the countdown ticks for spaceships landing.

I had to share this terrible adaptation of the first book in the trilogy. We can talk about all the things they messed up, but I refuse to watch this movie so I won’t be able to participate aside from pointing to how epic this series could have been as an animated show.

Withholding Information in The Ask and the Answer

Be that as it may, the Ask and the Answer, a power play unfolds between President Prentiss and Mistress Coyle. Patrick Ness creates two people who share a lot in common. Contrary to what Coyle and Prentiss may say, they both have close tactics to disarm their opposition. For starters, they will do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals. They are not above lying or withholding information.

At a closer look, the novel’s title suggests the existence of dialogue. An ask or a question demands an answer. A dialogue doesn’t always connote understanding. As such, this is what The Ask and the Answer revolve around a conversation where no one is listening.

In The Knife of Letting Go, noise was a weapon. The Ask and The Answer instead relies on silence. After all, President Prentiss strips the former mayor of Haven of all power—and takes away his silence. He punishes the citizens of Haven by selectively providing silence.

Ignorance in The Ask and the Answer

While I have no clue what could resolve the tension between Mistress Coyle and President Prentiss, I am eager to read on. Could there be a way for them to share power? To say that I am hesitant is an understatement. I am familiar with the heartbreak caused by Patrick Ness’ story endings. However, I am also familiar with his writing’s beauty and impact. I have faith that he’ll further explore the adults’ perspectives on war and violence in the finale.

As I approach the last book, I wonder if Ness will examine perspective some more. Let me clarify. Do Todd and Viola see things fairly Are there other people who are unsure about these leading figures? Will there be more discussion of how ignorance and silence play into a political conflict in this world?

The author certainly lays down the groundwork for further explorations. Initially, Todd’s conversations with President Prentiss are frightening. Patrick Ness writes, “I squint up into the light, up toward the Mayor’s face. It’s blank as ever. It’s the empty, lifeless wall. I might as well be talking into a bottomless pit.” (19).

Todd sees the emotionless void in Prentiss from the beginning. But is he alone in noticing this? To what extent is Viola and Todd’s cooperation damning? Is their naivete something they can be redeemed from? Is it too simplistic to assume that everyone can be protected in a war? And will there be a more nuanced take on how being active participants in a war affects these characters?

Davy Prentiss’ Character Development

Davy Prentiss Jr. is essentially the Draco of this series. Raised by an awful parent, Davy does not seem to understand compassion or affection. He bullies Todd. To make things worse, he would taunt Todd for his connection to Viola. But, much like Malfoy, Davy grows on readers in The Ask and the Answer.

Despite his limited development in the previous book, his scenes with Todd were full of subdued emotion. Part of it stems from the two of them trying to appear as adults (and there is toxic masculinity working in there as well). Both boys are children. Davy Prentiss Jr. is a boy, torn and afraid. A child.

Imagine the pain of facing this. For instance, Patrick Ness writes, “For every failure and every wrong—For letting his pa down—And he’s looking up at me—And he’s begging me—He’s begging me—Like the only one who can forgive him—Like it’s only me who’s got the power—” (486)

Davy and Todd’s relationship will tear hearts for years. Often, I find myself thinking of him. I do hope audiences get to see this story unfold on screen. Even if the Spackle may look awkward with our crappy technology, this is a necessary story.

These relationships are meaningful. The complications within them can certainly lead to deep discussions on maturity, masculinity, and nature vs. nurture.

I am going to include a very brief list of my favorite side characters who should have their own series. Do you spot a favorite?

Maritza Cemetery Boys
Nova the Brooklyn Brujas books by Zoraida Cordova
Nazeera Shatter Me series (Tahereh Mafi)
Antonia Spell Bound (FT Lukens)
Grace The Last Hours (Cassandra Clare)
Beau Serpent & Dove books by Shelby Mahurin
Minor characters that deserve to have their own series

Spackle and Human Violence

In The Ask and the Answer, Patrick Ness incorporates more exposure to the spackle, which adds more to the power of ignorance and silence in the book. Let me explain. Although the spackle does not communicate in the first two books, I find Patrick Ness’ inclusion of them to be quite powerful. They are peaceful beings who do not seem to be interested in humans all that much. But humans on the other hand are keen on exterminating them.

The violence between these two groups mimics that of colonizing forces and indigenous peoples of a land. It is very hard not to see the parallels. But, much like those tensions, history books did not highlight those experiences until recently. So, the silence around the spackles’ suffering is deafening. The fact that no one speaks for them is rather telling. Even our main characters are not necessarily sympathetic (yet).

The spackle is the original inhabitant of this new planet and the symbolism is hard to not notice. The audience gets to see more of them in The Ask and the Answer because Todd is made responsible for them along with Davy Jr.

The cruelty towards the spackle is made even more apparent. For example, metal IDs label them as objects to be moved around without consent. the author showcases elements of dehumanization and cruelty towards the indigenous people of the story’s setting. They are the ones being hurt most as these two colonizing groups fight to get control of land not even theirs to claim.

Parting Words

While the story is not an easy emotional journey, I will say that Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy has been a source of many reflections for me. I think of Todd, Violet, Manchee, Aaron, and Davy Prentiss Jr. often.

If you feel reluctant to read the series, I highly recommend it. Just prepare for emotional damage to come your way. There are certain elements I am curious to see how they’ll unfold.
1) Todd’s growth as an adult (since his community views 13-year-olds and older are adults). He has had to make some difficult choices thus far but how will he use the Noise to his advantage (if he can)?

2) How will Viola’s participation in the Answer change her as a person?
3) What will happen to the Spackle?
4) Will the Mayor reveal more of his intentions to Todd?

While I am not keen on watching the adaptation, there is this cool interview with Patrick Ness with mentions of it.

If you are going through a difficult time keeping your reading routine, give this blog post of mine a read.

Until my next post, I hope you keep on reading. I’ll see you soon.


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