Reading Ideas: The Knife of Never Letting Go

The first book we will be reading in the Hogwarts Professor Book Club is Patrick Ness’ Monsters of Men, which will be published on 28 September. The thing is that Monsters is not a stand alone work; it’s the final novel in Mr. Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy. If you haven’t read the first two book, The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and The Answer, then you have a bunch of great reading to do in the next two weeks.

The bad news is “time is short!” The good news is that that’s the only bad news; the novels are wonderfully well written, challenging, and promise a huge pay-off ( a Monster pay-off?) in the series finale. My job this week and next is to provide “reading ideas,” questions and thoughts for your reflection on your first or second trip through the first and second books, ideas to foster return trips to the book that are spoiler free. In the days just prior to Monsters of Men‘s publication, I’ll put up some speculative notes about the last book that will assume you’ve read Knife and The Ask.

Here are my first five ideas to spur your thinking:

(1) The Knife of Never Letting Go is the coming-of-age story of Todd Hewitt, a boy on the cusp of manhood at age 13. It is a book, in large part, about what it means to be a man, and correspondingly, what it means when women become like men and when everyone despises what it means to be a child or a woman. Inevitably in a postmodern work, we are confronted by the evil metanarrative that our hero must recognize as a lie and transcend; I don’t think you’ll struggle in seeing this. As you might guess from the title, a lot of this is wrapped up in the knife Todd carries. Think hard about that knife.

(2) I suspect the book’s six parts reflect one another in mirror composition fashion of some kind; there is a strong story frame in which the beginning and end are joined and the story center, ‘Wilf and the Sea of Things,’ has a mythic meaning that acts as a pivot and resolution of the peripheral points of the story circle (and the challenge of materialism). Be thinking as you travel with Todd on his heroic journey about story structure and how it buttresses the story meaning; it happens, I think, as clearly as the bridge in the chief protagonists’ relationship is pictured by a bridge in the narrative line.

(3) The book is set on a ‘New World’ that has been colonized by settlers from an ‘Old World’ who are searching for a better life. As with most science fiction and fantasy, Knife comes with an implicit satirical and allegorical edge that is fairly sharp; New World and Todd’s nightmare confusion is meant to be taken as a commentary on our world and our lives. There are three or four transparencies that almost leap from the page, namely, a critique of the dehumanizing effects of a 24/7 information culture, a kick-the-dead-horse assault on religious fundamentalism and cult-life, and a curious, even relatively risky exploration of the Fall of Man and the meaning of Sacrifice. I think the serious reader will recognize the shadows of Islamism throughout the books and its threat to western culture as well as the difficulty in confronting this threat without an awareness of the history and power of Western Civilization.

(4) Patrick Ness is a postmodern T. S. Eliot, at least in terms of his citizenship travels; he was born and raised in America, principally Hawaii and the Northwest, schooled at USC, and has jumped the pond to write and teach in the UK. He became a British citizen in 2005. Forgive me for urging you to commit the Personal Heresy but I think your reading of Knife will be richer if Todd’s story of becoming a man and travels away from where he was born is read as a possible comparison of the US and the UK and as an expatriot’s struggle to escape his American identity. I do not offer this as the meaning of the book, far from it, but as a point of reflection. ‘New World’ and ‘Old World’ have specific meanings to Americans living overseas, right?

(5) Names are important to the story, especially biblical and Shakespearean ones, so I recommend for your reflection some special attention to the back-story of Aaron, especially with respect to the Golden Calf, Olivia from Twelfth Night (or Shakespeare in Love or She’s the Man), Benjamin, and ‘Todd.’ Given the meaning of such an evidently allegorical bildungsroman and hero’s journey, not to mention the near guilelessness of the lead character, I doubt ‘Todd’ is meant to mean ‘fox’ in this story, as the name dictionaries all say it does. The books’ penchant for Christian and biblical names makes me think ‘Todd’ is meant to be understood as ‘Thaddeus,’ the Aramaic word for ‘Heart,’ the spiritual faculty of the human person, or “breast,’ as in ‘bosom buddy.’

That’s a lot for getting started! Please don’t read any further in the comment boxes if you don’t want to know ‘spoilers’ about the story content and how it turns out. For those of you who have  read Knife and The Ask, I request that you feel free to discuss Knife below and any plot or theme points you’d like, but without reference to The Ask. I know that’s a difficult containment issue, but, hey, if I just wrote out five reading ideas without using the word “noise,” I’m confident that you’re up to this challenge. Reading ideas from The Ask will be posted early next week —

If you haven’t read The Knife of Never Letting Go, get on board, get a copy, and get reading. The discussion of Monsters at month’s end promises to be a reward worth many times whatever investment we put into reading the series’ openers now!


  1. I’ll have to bow out of reading this series, seeing as it starts off with another madman preacher as the enemy from the blurb I read on Amazon. Kind of getting tired with that trope. Plus, there are, unfortunately, enough real life madmen preachers to spend time reading about fictional ones. 🙂

  2. Louise M. Freeman says

    Hey, there’s even another character named Snow!

  3. Oh no… more books that I have to read quickly. I don’t know how I’m going to do all three things I want to do before the end of November!

    1. Finish “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell
    2. Re-read all the Harry Potter books prior to seeing the next movie.
    and, now, thanks to this post:
    3. Read The Knife of Never Letting Go AND The Ask before September 28th.

  4. Louise–I totally thought the same thing! 🙂

    I enjoyed this one and hope to get to THE ASK AND THE ANSWER by this weekend.

  5. First off, thanks John for starting this book club of sorts. I don’t often find colleagues who read/enjoy YA lit (or will admit to it anyway) — especially the sci-fi / fantasy genre.

    I must admit, Knife seemed a little too much at first, trying too hard and beating us over the head with post modern messages. But after about 25 pages, the roles of women dialogue caught my attention and I couldn’t put the book down. (Not that plowing through good reads is atypical for me). I found the different settlements decisions on the roles of women (and men) very interesting. While all of these settlements (to lesser degrees than Prentisstown, perhaps) are basically functioning today in Our World, having them all seamlessly lined up in a book seemed more disturbing to me. I am still processing, so I am not sure where this stream of consciousness is going, but as the 13 Colonies were formed under similar circumstances – grouping together like minded people based on their common beliefs thereby binding people in their prejudices. Is tolerance/fear of (or even a lazy apathy for) the intolerant human nature? Is it american or unamerican to interfere? Is it right or wrong? Big questions. Good Book.

  6. Yes, George, I’m a little tired of the crazy preachers, myself, but this guy is really more like the Emperor from the Star Wars movies (cue Todd in Luke Skywalker mode shrieking: “I’ll never join you!”)

  7. Thank you so much John for this wonderful guide to reading chaos #1. I just got the book from the library a few days ago and having some direction right from the start is a tremendous help. I’m only about a third of the way through but already can’t wait to read the discussion points here. Thanks!

  8. quick follow up question – Does Manchee mean or refer to something? A quick google search did not prove successful.

  9. Susan Raab says

    “Manchee” bugged me too. I finally assumed it was short for Commanche, which may not be what the author intended, but at least I could keep reading without tripping over the name every time. I felt justified at the end when Manchee proved such a great warrior.

  10. Susan – fabulous! It makes sense especially in the story trail of New World vs Old World, fighting with the natives, etc. I really want another dog just so I can name him Manchee – one of the best dogs in Literature. “Poo, Todd!”

  11. Susan Raab says

    It speaks volumes that the only characters with a sense of humor in these books are Ben, Wilf and Manchee. I tend to associate a sense of humor with humility and right relationship with the Divine. The breakneck pace of these books left little room for humor (alas), so it can’t be accidental that Manchee is included in the elevated group, scatological as his jokes may be.

  12. Hello! I know this thread is really old, just wondering if any thoughts about the symbolism of the knife were ever posted? I am new to the blog, just read the first book – The Knife of never Letting Go. I see John has said to think “long and hard” about the knife, which I have been doing. I am seeing it as a sort of physical extension of free will. Would love to hear other thoughts on it though!

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