There ain't nothing but Noise in this world, nothing but the constant thoughts of men and things coming at you and at you and at you, ever since the spacks released the Noise germ during the war, the germ that killed half the men and every single woman, my ma not excepted, the germ that drove the rest of the men mad, the germ that spelled the end for all Spackle once men's madness picked up a gun.(p.13)Todd, who's twelve years old, is the youngest boy in Prentisstown, a solitary colony on a distant planet ('New World'). His mother was the last woman in Prentisstown: all the women are dead from a sickness that's made the men (and animals, native and exotic) able to hear one another's thoughts.
They call this Noise. It never, ever stops.
Todd can't wait for his thirteenth birthday, when he'll officially become a man. Ben and Cillian, who've raised him, won't tell him what happens on his birthday, only that it's a surprise. Meanwhile Todd mooches around with his dog, Manchee, who's the closest he has to a friend despite rather limited interests ("Need a poo, Todd ... Squirrel! Squirrel! Squirrel!")
Then Todd encounters a patch of silence in the marsh, and his life changes with alarming rapidity. He ends up questioning everything he's grown up believing, everything he's been told, everything that seems obvious. He begins to learn what he's capable of, and what he's missing. (How do you lie if everyone can hear your thoughts? How do you understand someone whose thoughts you can't hear?) He finds out how hard it can be to do the right thing. He grows up fast.
It's hard to discuss the plot of this book in any depth without spoilers. (Though I couldn't help but wonder if Patrick Ness had read Harlan Ellison's A Dog and His Boy at an impressionable age.) Easier to talk about the language -- reminiscent of Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, an effective mash of colloquial speech, repurposed vocabulary and oddly poetic imagery, sky as blue as fresh meat (p. 111) -- and the world-building; the ecology of an alien planet, the rough pioneer mentality, the insidious lies that uphold what was intended as a utopia. Easier to praise the pacing (breakneck but never out of control), or the gradual backstory, or the elements that are left implicit.
Warning: The Knife of Never Letting Go ends on a hell of a cliffhanger. And it's not a cheerful book. Nevertheless, I have the rest of the trilogy and will be reading it just as soon as I've cleared my palate with something frivolous.