The Ask And The Answer is the second installment in the Chaos Walking Trilogy written by Patrick Ness and published on May 4, 2009. The events follow
immediately on from The Knife of Never Letting Go
The novel begins
as Todd Hewitt recovers consciousness after having surrendered to Mayor Prentiss in The Knife of Never Letting Go. Injured and disorientated, he is subjected to coercive persuasion by the new heads of New Prentisstown, led by ‘President Prentiss’, in a barely lit room. His only concern, much to the surprise of President Prentiss, is Viola and her whereabouts.
Elsewhere, in the early morning, Viola wakes to a well lit room. Her thoughts are, similarly, not for her own health but for Todd’s. Having been taken to a House of Healing to treat her gun shot wound, it is here that she meets Mistress Coyle, who is a renowned healer, and who is later revealed to have previous political and activist ties. Viola also meets the apprentices Madison (Maddy) and Corinne (Mistress Wyatt), among others, as she recovers.
In the town square, President Prentiss has called a meeting for all residents of New Prentisstown. He threatens to execute the previous Mayor of Haven, Mayor Ledger, in front of the gathered crowd to demonstrate his power, but stops short and bewilders his audience. Todd, having witnessed all this from his new prison in the town bell tower, recognises this technique as the same he was subjected. He wills the audience not to submit.
Back at the House of Healing, Viola has finally recovered enough to help Mistress Coyle and begins an apprenticeship as a healer.
Following this, Mayor Ledger is locked into the bell tower with Todd and speaks of the town’s situation. Haven has indeed discovered a treatment for Noise, but these pills have been confiscated by President Prentiss, who has reserved them for the leaders of New Prentisstown. He has also separated the males and females and taken all domestic Spackle away to a farm. The President is intent on creating a new world so the settlers, when they arrive, are welcome to a literal haven.
A group of women, led by Mistress Coyle, unhappy with these developments, leave New Prentisstown and reform a resistance movement from the time of the Spackle War, known as 'The Answer'. They carry out a series of bombings in New Prentisstown in retaliation to the invasion.
Meanwhile, Todd is assigned to work with Spackle alongside President Prentiss’ son, Davy. Todd hopes that by following the President’s orders, he is ensuring Viola’s heath and safety, while the President hopes that Davy will become a better person in the presence of Todd.
Uncivilised and arrogant, David nicknames Todd "pigpiss" and exercises his authority by forcing Todd to undergo immoral practices. (For example, branding the Spackle with metal bands in the absence of painkillers) The two constantly argue and Todd himself is shocked by David's inability to feel compassion.
This is where one of several large bombings happens. Todd, trying to redeem himself, saves a Spackle, 1017, but his heroics go unrewarded.
Angered by the attacks, President Prentiss sets up a counter-intelligence unit called The Ask. He promotes Todd and Davy into this unit, where Haven residents are captured and tortured for information on The Answer.
The next morning, Viola wakes to find that the House of Healing is completely empty except for one healer; Corinne. All the others have left to join the Answer, led by Mistress Coyle. Eventually, though, Mistress Coyle returns to recruit Viola, who feels that she has no choice but to join, knowing that President Prentiss has been torturing women and men alike.
At this time, Todd realises that he must choose a side, and is urged to do so by President Prentiss. At first, he knows he would unconditionally join Viola, but is convinced otherwise after a series of bombs kill all the domestic Spackle. Enraged, Todd is convinced that the Answer is behind these bombs. One Spackle, 1017, is found by Todd amongst the charred bodies, and Todd tells him to run from Haven. 1017 does so, but is still ungrateful and curses Todd in his language.
At The Answer’s headquarters, Viola is assigned kitchen duty. She is also taught by Mistress Coyle to assemble and set off a bomb, and actually does this during an attack. There is also an older teenager, Lee, who befriends her. He is intent on avenging his family, who have been taken prisoner by The Ask.
On his way back to his bell tower prison, Todd tells Davy about the Spackle bombing, and is surprised to find that the two now share a somewhat friendship.
Meanwhile, Viola and Lee arrive in Haven to rescue Todd, knowing that otherwise Todd will die in an attack on New Prentisstown led by the Answer the next day. Viola finds Todd, only to discover that he is unwilling to leave. She noticed that there is something darker to his personality, but still urges him to leave with her and Lee, warning that the Answer will attack from the east.
However, this conversation is cut short when Mayor Ledger emerges, explaining his loyalty to President Prentiss. He holds them at gunpoint and searches through Viola's backpack, finding a self-arming bomb, that detonates when it senses a pulse. He attempts to throw it away, but it explodes before he can do so.
Viola and Lee are captured by President Prentiss thereafter. Viola is interrogated and tortured, while Todd watches from a soundproof room. The Answer are planning to attack New Prentisstown, and President Prentiss wishes to know from where.
Todd, unable to watch Viola in pain, screams that the Answer is attacking from the East, ending the torture session. The President then tells Todd to meet him in the town Cathedral with Viola. Todd realises where his duty lies, and formulates a plan to stop the President, with the help of Ivan and other military personnel.
The guards seem reluctant at first because of Todd's age, but are soon convinced by his leadership qualities and agree to help. The party rescue Lee and untie Viola, and they set out. During this time, Lee bitterly asks Viola if she loves Todd, and she confirms that she does, though she does not specify to what degree.
Once at the cathedral, the President attacks them. Retaliating with simply his Noise, he uses it as a weapon and disables the entire procession. President Prentiss tells Todd that Noise can be controlled with discipline and experience, and holds Viola at gunpoint while the rest of Todd’s group are incapacitated. The President insists on Todd joining him, and that he still would like him to do so, despite the betrayal.
Soon, Davy Prentiss arrives, confused by the situation. He tells his father that an army is coming, and he requires orders. It is at this point that a second scout ship, similar to the one in which Viola crashed in, lands in New Prentisstown. Todd, out of desperation, holds Davy at gunpoint, threatening to kill him if the President does not release Viola. The President states that his son is useless, and he'd rather him dead anyway. Davy is stunned by this, having always sought his father’s approval, and breaks down, unable to do anything. Very suddenly, the President drops Viola and fires his gun in annoyance. It is Davy who he shoots, and the betrayed son quickly dies.
Angry and upset, Todd attacks the President. Quickly acquiring the skill to use his Noise as a weapon, Todd uses Viola’s name to overcome the President’s power. Todd then ties the President up in the same room he himself was interrogated in at the beginning.
Victorious, Todd sends Viola off to meet with the scout ship on the back of Davy's horse. As soon as this is done, a horn sounds across New Prentisstown and Todd sees an army of Spackle marching towards the city. President Prentiss tells Todd that he was the one who killed the Spackle, and that the army is coming for revenge. He insists that Todd will need his assistance to survive the Spackle, and Todd, left with no other means, releases the President, in the hopes that he was not committing the biggest mistake of his life.
The Ask and the Answer received largely positive reviews from critics. Publishers Weekly praised the brilliant cast, and believed it to be “among the best YA science fiction novels of the year”, including it in their best books of 2009, while Anita Barnes Lowen from Children's Literature labelled the book “a stunning not-to-be-missed science fiction adventure.”Independent on Sunday said that '... it is every bit as ambitious as the first book but the ambition is easily matched by the execution, with powerful prose and tight plotting that pull the reader on at a terrifying speed.'
Sunday Times commented that “Ness is both accessible and sophisticated,” and said that he handled extraordinary themes “in prose that is simple and heart-stopping.” The Daily Mail also praise the themes in The Ask and the Answer, while called the plot “twisting” and “action-packed.” A starred review from Booklist did the same, calling it a “relentless flurry of heavy-hitting issues, hinging on appeasement, complicity, and maintaining one’s morality in the face of impossible choices. Kirkus Reviews noted that the plot was “breathless... with heartbreakingly real characters” and the Costa Book Awards 2009 Judges recognized the novel as "a strikingly original and compelling work."
- Winner of the 2009 Costa children's fiction prize
- Shortlisted for the 2009 Teenage Book of the Year Award 2009<
- Longlisted for the 2009 Booktrust Teenage Prize
- Longlisted for the UKLA Children's Book Award
- Nominated for the prestigious 2010 Carnegie Award