2008 was the year of the YA novel. You could see it on the Hugo ballot, on bestseller lists, and on the blogosphere. On a personal level, I see it in the fact that I'm still catching up to the year's crop, starting with a book that received ecstatic and effusive praise from many of my friends and most respected reviewers, Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go. To name but a few, Niall Harrison, Dan Hartland, and Adam Roberts have all raved about it, and Martin Lewis called it "the best effing science fiction novel I've read all year." Taken together, these reviews build up a heavy burden of expectations that few novels could gracefully shoulder, and even as I was turning The Knife of Never Letting Go's first page I was preparing myself for the inevitable disappointment. My reaction to the novel, however, turns out to be more complicated. Knife is a compelling, engrossing read. I wolfed it down in a single sitting, and found myself genuinely affected by its characters and set pieces. Still, I'm reluctant to call it good, and leaning more towards adjectives like 'successful' and 'effective'--by which I mean successfully and effectively manipulative--and the novel's themes and premise trouble me with their presumably unintentional implications.
Knife is narrated by Todd, the last boy in Prentisstown and, as far as he knows, on the whole of New World, a planet colonized by humans twenty years ago, whose native inhabitants (again, as Todd has been taught) unleashed a virus that killed all the human women, gave animals the ability to talk, and turned all men into projective telepaths. Todd has spent his entire life being bombarded by Noise, the violent, chaotic morass of thoughts, feelings, fears and fantasies projected by the men around him. Readers with even a little bit of experience reading YA fiction will not have needed the caveats planted in the preceding sentences to guess that some or all of Todd's understanding of his world is mistaken, and Knife's opening does promise the slow investigation of their world so beloved of YA protagonists, as Todd, feeling surly and discontented--by the loneliness of being the only boy in a town of men who consider him beneath their notice; by the manhood that will be thrust upon him by his fast-approaching 13th birthday, after which he will be forced to put away childish things; by the general uselessness of his dog Manchee, whose gift of speech is employed mostly in discussions of poo and things to chase --seeks a brief reprieve by venturing to a nearby swamp to pick fruit and finds something else, a hole in the planet's blanket of Noise. Nonplussed, Todd returns home (on the way giving us a tour of Prentisstown and introducing us to its atmosphere of misery and barely-suppressed fear and violence, and to its most prominent citizens, the deranged preacher Aaron and the charismatic Mayor Prentiss, who together hold the town in their thrall) and tells his guardians, Cillian and Ben, about his encounter. In a traditionally structured YA novel, the adults would either scoff at Todd's claims or dismiss them in a manner so cagey and suspicious as to immediately confirm them, but Cillian and Ben merely blanch and spring into action--"[they] take a look at each other and then back at me. "You have to leave Prentisstown," Ben says."
And with that, it's off to the races, the novel's pace ratcheting up to the maximum and not letting up until its cliffhanger ending. But then, the whole of Knife is made up of cliffhangers. Returning to the swamp, Todd finds the source of the quiet he experienced there--a girl, called Viola, the sole survivor of a scout ship for a new group of colonists, who, astonishingly to Todd, has no Noise. Together, they flee the Mayor and Aaron, but each escape to safety turns out to be the equivalent of the penultimate scene in a slasher film, in which the presumed dead or outdistanced antagonist surprises the heroes as they finally allow themselves to rest. The relentlessness with which these false bottom endings keep coming is probably Ness's most impressive accomplishment with Knife. It pulls the reader along, making the novel almost impossible to put down, and leaves us, at the novel's end, feeling nearly as exhausted and wrung-out as Todd and Viola, and, naturally enough, panting for the next installment in their story. At the same time, however, I'm not sure whether Ness should be applauded for so blatantly manipulating the readers' emotions by any means necessary, using the cheapest tools in his toolbox with all the subtlety of sledgehammers. It works, of course, but how admirable is it to get a rise out of readers by, for example, endangering the cute talking dog?
Still, perhaps what's really most impressive about Knife is that despite its breakneck pace and cliché-ridden plot, Ness manages to actually say something with the novel. In interviews, Ness has likened Noise to the din of media and information with which the modern world bombards us, but the involuntary exposure of a person's raw, churning id and subconscious strikes me as a very poor analogy for the processed, calculated information we encounter on TV, in newspapers, and even online, where the most confessional of LiveJournals is ultimately an attempt by its author to present a certain face to the world. More successful, however, is Ness's use of Noise as a means of exploring, furthering, and hindering gender relations. The metaphor is not at all subtle--Todd has grown up among men whose every thought has been laid bare before him. Viola is incomprehensible to him because he can't imagine how she thinks--is even, when they first meet, doubtful whether she thinks at all, whether she isn't simply empty of all thought and personality, a void, a nothingness (as I said, not subtle). Over the course of the novel, in the brief interstices between escaping one menace and discovering and fleeing another, Todd and Viola get to know each other the old-fashioned way, and Todd learns just how many of the truths he's been raised with--about women, about his family, about Prentisstown, about New World--have been lies.
A more successful metaphor, but also one that leaves me feeling distinctly uncomfortable, in that it seems to turn The Knife of Never Letting Go into the equivalent of those well-intentioned science fiction stories that try to speak out against racism by using aliens as stand-in for people of color. It's all very well and good that Ness has written a story that encourages its readers to learn to understand the Other, but despite the misogynistic cliché, women aren't actually an alien species. The premise of Knife, however, makes of them something even more foreign and incomprehensible than that--New World's native inhabitants, after all, produce Noise, and even animals speak. Only women are so foreign that they require careful study before their personhood is even acknowledged. Feminism, we're told, is the radical notion that women are people, but when Todd first meets Viola he knows her for a girl even though he's never seen one before because there is something ineffably different about her--"Something about her shape, something about her smell, something I don't know but it's there and she's a girl." The otherness of women persists throughout the novel, and what Todd learns through his acquaintance with Viola isn't to reject that notion (which in fact he can't, because in Ness' world women truly are Other), but to find ways to overcome it--upon his departure from Prentisstown, Cillian and Ben give Todd his mother's diary, but Todd, a poor reader, can't make heads or tails out of it until he asks Viola to read it to him (again, not a subtle metaphor)--and in so doing validates the 'men are from Mars, women are from Venus' worldview that is baked into the novel's premise.
Part of the reason, I think, that The Knife of Never Letting Go makes such troubling statements about women and the relationships between men and women is that it isn't really concerned with either. Knife is, ultimately, a novel about masculinity and what it means to be a man--albeit one that, unlike Fight Club or Black Man, defines masculinity, in part, through its attitude to women. The other component of the definition of manhood Todd must struggle with is violence. A man, Todd has been taught from childhood, can kill. Killing may, in fact, be the very definition of manhood, and Todd, who repeatedly flinches from striking the killing blow against his and Viola's pursuers, must ask himself whether he can be a man, whether he can fashion his own definition of manhood, and whether he can take a life without buying into Prentisstown's definition of it. Though it is, on the whole, successful, there are two problems with Ness's treatment of this issue. The first is that Todd does kill someone halfway through the novel, an alien whom he and Viola encounter after a near escape, and whom Todd kills out of misdirected anger and fear even though the alien posed no threat to them. The Prentisstown men Todd meets later on insist that this act isn't enough to make Todd a killer and thus a man, and though I do take the point that killing an alien whom one has been taught to hate and fear is easier than killing someone you think of as a person, coupled with the novel's Western/frontier story trappings this attitude has an uncomfortable whiff of 'not including Indians and Chinamen' about it.
The other problem with equating murder and manhood is, of course, how completely it leaves women out of the picture. The notion that women might feel bloodlust, and that they might wonder how those feelings and the choice to act on them affect their femininity and humanity, is not even considered until a few pages from the end of the novel, and though that consideration seems definitive--Viola takes a life--the novel's repeated emphasis on the inextricable link between manhood and killing, and the nature of the murder--Viola kills only after Todd has repeatedly refused to do so because he doesn't want to become a Prentisstown man--have the effect of flattening the very question of what violence means to her. The implication is that Viola is allowed to kill because killing doesn't affect her definition of herself the way it would Todd. Which, to be fair, is not an attitude originated by Ness--unlike the concept of Noise and the disconnect it imposes between men and women, the notion that women don't have the same relationship to violence that men do is entirely familiar from the real world--but the novel's premise imposes such a disconnect from Viola's internal monologue that we never get to delve any further into the question. Even her telling Todd that she wanted to kill her victim feels more like a statement about Viola than about womanhood, whereas Todd's bloodlust is of course a reflection of his masculinity.
It seems likely that Knife's sequel, which among other things splits the narrative between Todd and Viola, will address at least some of the issues I've raised here. Nevertheless, on a thematic level Knife feels like a self-contained argument. It's the story of how Todd develops his own definition of manhood, rejecting violence as a component of his self-definition and seeking to understand the other. That's a worthy message, and Ness delivers it with delicacy and assuredness, making it clear how wide the gap is between Todd's convictions and the actions his circumstances force him into, and how quickly the world erodes his innocence and makes him complicit in horrors. But it's also a message, and a definition of manhood, arrived at through a comprehensive othering of women, and which implicitly defines womanhood as not-manhood.
It seemed logical to follow my reading of The Knife of Never Letting Go with Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, another novel about children forced into violent actions with several interesting differences from the Ness, most notably the fact that the narrator is female and her companion is male. Katniss Everdeeen lives in a dystopian future, in which the wealthy, decadent capital of her nation maintains its dominance over the twelve districts that serve it and produce for it by pitting them against each other. Each year, two tributes, a boy and a girl, are selected from each district, and forced to fight against each other and tributes from other districts in the titular games. The last child standing wins their district glory and wealth. Katniss, a skilled hunter and tracker, hails from the impoverished district 12, a mining district whose inhabitants often go hungry, and has been her mother and younger sister Prim's protector and breadwinner since the death of her father, putting food on the table by poaching in the nearby woods with her friend Gale. When Prim is selected as this year's tribute, Katniss volunteers to take her place, and is joined by Peeta Mellark, a baker's son  for whom Katniss has distinctly mixed feelings, resenting the relative ease and safety of his life in a slightly-closer-to-middle-class family, but also remembering fondly the time he gave her some bread when she and her family were on the verge of starvation.
As it turns out, The Hunger Games is Knife's reverse image in more respects than just the genders of their protagonists. Both novels talk about gender roles, about violence, and about the effect that modern media has on society and individuals--in The Hunger Games this is the structure of the games themselves, which are broadcast live to the capital and the twelve districts like a Running Man-style reality TV program, and which are won less through the competitor's martial skills than through their ability to charm the audience and thus win wealthy 'sponsors' who will send them much-needed supplies. But if Knife is unpersuasive as a metaphor for modern technology and has interesting, if problematic, things to say about gender and violence, Hunger Games is the reverse.
Gender seems to be a non-issue in this novel. Collins seems content to have posited a reversal of gender roles--Katniss is the stereotypical tomboy, accustomed to hardship and physical exertion, abrasive and confrontational, uncomfortable with weakness and caretaking (though her mother and sister are skilled healers, Katniss can't deal with the sight of injury), and, unbeknownst to her, a heartbreaking beauty, whereas Peeta is gentle, thoughtful, and self-aware--and doesn't explore this reversal, how it's seen by Katniss and Peeta or the people around them, in the body of the novel. Similarly, there's very little exploration of the morality of Katniss and Peeta's predicament, and Collins repeatedly avoids confronting them with a scenario in which they must kill an innocent in order to survive. She does so by positing the existence of 'Career tributes,' children from wealthy districts who have been training for the games, and have volunteered for them in order to win glory. These are uniformly depicted as vicious and sadistic, and do most of the killing in the novel, either picking one another off or killing the other, 'good' children from the poor districts. The latter murders, of course, justify the Careers' own deaths, and on those rare occasions when Katniss or Peeta kill it's usually one of these characters , and often one whom we have witnessed brutally killing a more sympathetic contestant.
Where The Hunger Games shines, though, is in its portrayal of reality TV. Not since Series 7: The Contenders has a work of fiction so perfectly skewered that genre's obsession with 'real' emotion and 'real' interpersonal drama. Desperate for the attention that will win them sponsors and a chance to win the game, Peeta and Katniss come up with just to right faces to present to the voracious Hunger Games audience. They will pretend that Peeta has been secretly in love with Katniss for years, and that Katniss has just found out about his feelings under these tragic circumstances. The two immediately become audience favorites, and as they enact their doomed romance first in the pre-game interviews and presentations and later in the game arena, the swell of audience sympathy forces a rule change that will allow them both to win the game, if they can survive it. Katniss and Peeta end up performing for their lives--buying a hot meal with a kiss, medicine with an intimate conversation. Even the most inexperienced reader will have guessed that Peeta is not faking his feelings, and that Katniss's performance of growing infatuation isn't entirely that, but the brilliance of The Hunger Games is that it depicts the corrosive effect that selling their love to the audience has on Katniss and Peeta's romance. How can you be certain of your feelings for someone when you're not only stuck in a life and death situation with them, but when the difference between life and death is determined by your ability to successfully sham the right kind of feelings for them?
As interesting as Collins's treatment of this issue is, it isn't enough to make the novel, which on the whole leaves me rather cold. Like The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Hunger Games is manipulative, but neither successfully nor effectively so. If Ness's manipulations pulled me into his novel despite my better judgment, Collins's knock me out of hers. The difference, I think, is that while both authors are manipulative, only Collins uses manipulation to make life easier for herself and her characters, to elide and smooth over the difficult aspects of her story. When Todd abandons Manchee, even as the uncomprehending dog calls him back, in order to save Viola, it's a manipulation, but one that forces us to question his choice even though we know that a girl's life is worth more than a dog's. When Katniss befriends a young contestant named Rue, whom the narrative repeatedly compares to Prim, only for a Career to kill Rue, it's a manipulation, but one that makes it easier for us to countenance Katniss killing Rue's murderer. When Aaron repeatedly tracks Todd and Viola down, reappearing each time, more physically damaged and more deranged, like a fundamentalist Freddy Krueger, it's a manipulation, but one that puts us at odds with Todd, who grows increasingly reluctant to take a life even as we begin baying for Aaron's blood. When the Careers brutally murder each other and the weaker players, it's a manipulation intended to justify their deaths at Katniss and Peeta's hands. The first person narrative is a manipulation in both novels, locking us into the point of view of a person with only a limited understanding of the world, but whereas Todd's incomprehension is all-encompassing and often quite frustrating, Katniss's is localized. For the most part, she's a smart, observant, savvy person--much better, for example, at recognizing the messages being sent to her by her team outside the game arena through the gifts they send her, and tailoring her and Peeta's behavior accordingly. But somehow, when it comes to realizing the reality of Peeta's feelings for her, she's a dunce , and the novel persists in telling us that she's emotionally illiterate even as her first person narrative spews pop psychology such as "Most of [my life] has been consumed with the acquisition of food. Take that away and I'm not really sure who I am, what my identity is."
Perhaps the biggest problem with The Hunger Games's manipulativeness is that manipulation is actually the subject of the novel, that even as it encourages us to sneer at the games' audience who are lapping up Peeta and Katniss's manufactured romance, it expects us to buy into the real romance, despite the fact that they are the same thing. "I think the real excitement for the audience was watching you fall for [Peeta,]" Katniss is told in her victory interview, and there's supposed to be a rich irony in our knowledge that the infatuation was completely staged. But the readers are also supposed to have been excited by watching the 'real' Katniss develop 'real' feelings for Peeta, and the novel seems entirely unaware of the disconnect between the two reactions it's aiming for. It helps a little that Peeta and Katniss end the novel at odds, for the first time genuinely shamming affection instead of pretending to fake feelings they really feel, but it seems pretty obvious that this is merely a temporary setback, that future novels in the series will see the two crazy kids making it work. As impressive as I found Collins's reality TV satire, it is entirely undermined by her insistence on framing her novel as a love story.
At the end of The Hunger Games, I had a pretty good idea of where Katniss's story was headed--a difficult reintegration into her old life, a tortured choice between Peeta and Gale, perhaps rebellion against the capital and the Hunger Games system--but not a great deal of interest in continuing to follow it. The Knife of Never Letting Go, meanwhile, has captured me. Despite my serious reservations about it (and the fact that there isn't a single aspect of the novel that is as perfectly handled as Collins's reflection of reality TV in The Hunger Games), it is at least an uncompromising novel, one that, unlike The Hunger Games, shies away from easy answers and crowd-pleasing solutions. I have no idea what's in store for Todd and Viola, but whatever it is I'm sure it'll be terrifying, and force them both to make difficult and uncomfortable choices, and for that reason if no other I'm interested in continuing to follow their story. Neither The Hunger Games nor The Knife of Never Letting Go are a perfect way to wrap up the year of the YA adult novel (and anyway I still have Kristin Cashore's Graceling to go) but Ness's novel, at least, will keep me following the field in 2009 and 2010.
 Knife was published in 2008 and written some time beforehand, so the associations with Up are presumably a coincidence, but it doesn't help that one of the first things Manchee says is "Squirrel!" and that he and Todd encounter a large, food-obsessed, flightless bird.
 I can only imagine the despair of the Hebrew translator who has to craft something not-hilarious out of the combination 'Peeta the baker's son.'
 Actually, Peeta kills two non-Careers, but these death are minimized--one is inadvertent, the other happens off-screen, and its victim was already mortally wounded by the Careers. At any rate, his feelings on the subject are never explored.
 As annoying as Katniss's calculated dimness is, it does perhaps say something about the different requirements from male and female YA protagonists. Todd, who is not too bright, stubborn, illiterate, and often quite unpleasant, needs only a prodigious force of will to make him a sympathetic protagonist. Katniss is smart, strong, cunning, compassionate, determined, and beautiful, presumably in order to achieve the same effect.