When I read a book that I feel is extraordinary and, judging by reader reviews, I’m not alone in feeling that way, I find it very helpful to pick the book apart—deconstruct it—and try and figure out why it worked so well for me, personally, but also for so many other readers.
Just this week I “discovered” a real YA gem: The Knife of Never Letting Go: Chaos Walkingby Patrick Ness. It’s dystopian-set, the first book in a trilogy, and fairly long for YA—479 pages—and yet I read it in pretty much one sitting (staying up *way* too late!) because there was just no way I could put the book down once I started reading.
Which leads me to element #1: PACING. The pacing in KNIFE was pretty much perfect. Quick, almost relentlessly so, yet with the occasional ‘quiet time’ where readers can catch their breath and regroup. There were definite hooks to keep me turning the pages—cliffhanger chapter endings, surprise revelations, and story questions left unanswered, hinted at. You had to keep turning pages to unravel the full story. And so I did, both quickly and eagerly.
Element #2: CHARACTERIZATION. The story is told in first person POV by Todd, a boy who is only weeks away from the birthday that makes him a “man” in his society. Readers are fully immersed in his world, firmly inside his head. The author uses dialect so that the writing/spelling seem to come directly from Todd, which adds flavor to his character. Todd is a flawed character, somewhat weak and definitely angry at the beginning of the story. It doesn’t take long before readers are fully vested in Todd, rooting for him, wanting him to succeed, and wanting to learn the truths that have been withheld from him (and thus from us, the readers). There’s a bit of subjectivity to this element, of course, but I loved Todd. And, most importantly (at least in my opinion), readers see a major character arc with Todd—we seem him affected by the events as they unfold; we see him grow and change and make horrible mistakes. Ultimately, we see him grow up.
Equally compelling were the secondary characters—a mysterious girl, Viola, and a wonderfully loyal and endearing dog, Manchee, who both served as Todd’s primary companions throughout the story. In a lesser book, the secondary characters would be less fleshed out, less dimensional. But in KNIFE, even the “villain” was well-drawn, compelling, and multi-dimensional.
Element #3: PLOT. While there was a lot of familiar stuff in the plot—the dystopian setting, the “road novel” elements, the hero’s journey—there was also a rare freshness to it. I haven’t read anything like KNIFE before, and if I had to compare to it to anything, I would even almost say it had a Huckleberry Finn flavor that served the novel well. But the most compelling part of the plot to me was the element of surprise. Unlike most YA novels that I read today—especially dystopians—I had no idea what was going to happen next at any point in the story. Every discovery was a true discovery for me as a reader. The plot unfolded brilliantly, but often unexpectedly. Also, there was real depth to the story, serious themes explored without being at all preachy. There was also heartbreak—a gut-wrenching scene that made me cry. And I mean really cry. But it didn’t feel at all manipulative or exploitative. The heartbreak served a purpose. It was a key plot element that moved the story forward, and…well, it meant something. And now, three days after finishing the book, I’m still heartbroken. Still, I would not trade the experience of reading KNIFE for anything.
For me, it was the “perfect storm” of story elements—pacing, characterization, and plot, gelled together with extraordinary and evocative writing. I highly recommend it! I’d love to hear your recommendations for books that were “perfect storm” reads for you!