It is incredibly hard to write any sort of synopsis for The Ask and the Answer - this is a novel that relies on the reader groping their way blind through the story, being double crossed by the author's supreme talents, and learning for themselves the themes that are strongly conveyed. I do not want to spoil anything for those coming to this series for the first time - part of the rollercoaster feel to the novels are that you never know what is around the next corner. In essence, you have a situation where Viola and Todd have arrived in Haven, to discover the Mayor already waiting for them. They are split up and both suffer various events thanks to the formation of both the Ask and the Answer, opposing forces who want very different outcomes. By the end of the novel, war is imminent. And that really is ALL I can say!
My overwhelming feeling while reading The Ask and the Answer is that it should be handed to ANYONE who questions the relevance and importance of YA fiction. Some of the themes are as weighty and difficult to fathom as in the hardest philosophical discussion - themes such as power, control, the nature of tyranny, the reasons for war, love. These are powerful themes, yet presented in a manner which will thrill, scare and horrify young adult readers.
I particularly enjoyed the fact that Ness plundered periods in history to examine these themes. In the 'A' graffitied through New Prentisstown during the attacks of the Answer - and the fact the force is formed entirely of women - we have shades of the suffragettes, fighting for the right to be heard and have freedom. In the imprisonment of people, and the manner in which they are tagged and interrogated, we can see concentration camps, especially since people are segregated. Oppression and terror throughout history are represented here, from Nazis, to Communists, to the Chinese government.
We are also shown segregation and prejudice of people other than ourselves, thanks to the spackle and the fact they are treated much like slaves. Reminds me very much of the white man's treatment of black people...
So much happens in this novel that it would be far too breathless were it not for the very strong characters to fix upon and root for. These characters are drawn realistically in shades of grey, rather than absolutes. They commit cruelty because they believe it to be right; they make mistakes; they are distrusting at times. Some characters you hate to begin with become sympathetic characters by the end, and vice versa.
And once again, for me at least, an animal steals the show everytime she is on the page - this time Angharrad, Todd's horse, and her constant desire for reassurance, to feel the rest of the herd around her; her mutterings of 'boy colt' when she sees Tod. I adored her.
Honestly, I cannot understand why anyone with a deep love for science fiction and strong characters isn't picking up this trilogy. If you are put off by the YA label, and the fact that you believe The Ask and the Answer is for younger readers, you couldn't be more wrong. There are timeless qualities about this novel, ageless qualities, and the ability to present those themes that cut right to the heart of most human beings. The Ask and the Answer is, impossibly, a stronger read than The Knife of Never Letting Go, a novel that truly astonished me. Visceral horror and cruelty, moments of great tenderness and poignancy, and a central duo to fall in love with - The Ask and the Answer is a novel of supreme power, and touched me deeply. A tour de force.