The Reading Canary: Chaos Sucking

by Robinson L

Robinson L tears into the second and third books of Patrick Ness' "Chaos Walking" trilogy
Uh-oh! This is in the Axis of Awful...
Patrick Ness began the Chaos Walking trilogy with The Knife of Never Letting Go, which our esteemed editor reviewed here. I can't be bothered to give a synopsis, so please read the review if you need filling in on the particulars of New World, the characters, Noise, etc.

I don't have much to add to Kyra's assessment of Knife, except that the phonetic spelling coupled with the first person narration really, really bugged me.

Anyway, Ness followed up Knife with book two, The Ask and the Answer, and rounded out the trilogy with book three, Monsters of Men. Since my primary issues with the two books are very different, I'm going to structure my analysis differently for each one. I'm also going to spoil the hell out of both of them, but I won't claim to do anywhere near as good a job of spoiling them as Patrick Ness did by writing the blasted things.

The Ask and the Answer

At the end of The Knife of Never Letting Go, Todd and Viola arrived in Haven only to find it taken over by Mayor Prentiss. The Mayor arranges for Viola to receive treatment at a local medical facility, but hides her location from Todd, making further contact with her contingent upon Todd's cooperation. Todd reluctantly goes to work for the Mayor, at first to assure Viola's safety, but as time goes on he begins to identify more and more with the role, even as the things he does grow more and more horrific.

After a brief convalescence, Viola escapes Haven (by now renamed New Prentisstown) and joins the Answer, a partisan group led by the head healer, Mistress Coyle. Though repulsed by the Answer's terrorist bombings in Haven/New Prentisstown, Viola throws her lot in with them to resist the Mayor's tyranny.

There's actually a lot of promise to this book, and Ness works that potential to a certain amount of success. This is simultaneously the book's biggest strength and its ultimate downfall. First off, let's look at what Ness is doing right before we examine how and where it all goes wrong.

Themes and Style

(Warning: The following section contains possibly triggering content in brief discussions of domestic violence, violence against women, and political terror)

It has happened throughout history: peoples who go to war tend to become mirror images of their enemy[1]

The tendency of two sides in an armed conflict to grow increasingly similar in the atrocities they commit against each other is one of the major themes Patrick Ness explores in The Ask and the Answer. Every attack by the Answer provokes Mayor Prentiss to implement another crackdown and increasingly draconian methods of social control … which in turn provokes the Answer to even greater acts of terrorism.

The other major theme Ness tackles in this book is corruption, how good people become party to political oppression, torture, murder, even wholesale massacres. By throwing in with Mayor Prentiss, Todd quickly finds himself on a very slippery slope, with each barely excusable but apparently necessary infraction leading to another, slightly less conscionable one. By the end of the novel, Todd has put a group of the local sentient species (Spackle) to work in a concentration camp, branded them with metal bands, branded the human women left in Haven/New Prentisstown as potential allies of the Answer, and helped torture women suspected—on no real evidence—of collaborating with the Answer[2]. He hates his job at every step of the process, but he's just about able to convince himself of the necessity of each step, helped along by classic apologist rhetoric courtesy of the Mayor, such as “Surely truly loyal women would be happy to make such small sacrifices to protect law and order” (I paraphrase, but that's the gist of his argument).

Judith L. Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery, makes the point that in cases of both domestic abuse and political kidnappings, perpetrators employ intermittent acts of kindness and “gifts” as part of the process of breaking their victims. Ness neatly illustrates this principle early on, with the Mayor using just such an application of strategic mercy to gain first Todd's cooperation, and then the people of Haven's.

The narrative in this book is split between Todd and Viola—fortunately, Viola's narration can actually spell, which significantly cuts down on the reading problem I encountered in the previous book. Even Todd's portions have gone down from literally painful to just occasionally irritating, either because Ness has eased off on the “creative” spelling or just because I've grown desensitized to it.

So to sum up: the book has good, well-observed discourse which deals with important contemporary issues, and even the spelling has upgraded to “tolerable.” And I couldn't effing stand it.


My first major problem with The Ask and the Answer is that Ness employs all the grace and subtlety of an industrial sledgehammer in putting his points across. By page 100, even a functionally brain dead reader will understand how the Mayor is shaping Haven/New Prentisstown into a police state and shaping Todd into a model enforcer, how Mistress Coyle is just as bad as Mayor Prentiss, and how each atrocity by the one provokes a bigger atrocity by the other. Ness has made all his points crystal clear, but he takes the following 415 pages to beat them even further into the reader's skull, just to make sure. I can appreciate the points he's making, and under other circumstances would applaud him for making them, but I resent being bludgeoned by them.

My second major problem is that the themes Ness is playing with pretty much necessitate his main characters (especially Todd) acting absolutely horrible for 90% of the book—and spending most of the remaining 10% passive victims of forces beyond their control. As a reader, I can just about understand Todd's actions, but I still find them incredibly alienating. Perhaps there are authors who can write a good person who spends the majority of the story doing exactly what the reader desperately wants them not to do and still have it be engaging and not off-putting—if so, Patrick Ness is not among their number.

Part of the issue, I suspect, is that I came into the novel expecting an action adventure story with a dystopian setting, like Scott Westerfeld's Uglies or Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games. The latter two work as action adventure stories by carefully balancing out the dystopia's horror: even The Hunger Games at its grimdarkest, understands there are some places it must not go, so it doesn't. Ness dives recklessly into that dystopian horror, but still insists on retaining the action adventure elements: good wins over evil, the heroes emerge scarred but not permanently damaged, and no matter how badly they behave they never cross the Moral Event Horizon. The two styles clash horribly, and if there was any hope of Ness pulling off the “Todd becomes police state enforcer” scenario, making the series also an action adventure story drives the last nail into its coffin.

I'd probably have given up on the book early on, but the last damnable thing about Ness is that he's so masterful when it comes to tension that one can't stop reading—in that highly manipulative, almost drug-addicted mindset: “I don't want to keep doing this but it's so hard to make myself stop.” As it was, I frequently had to take a break from reading to cuss out Ness for feeding me this dreck.

The book has other problems. Early on, Ness introduces two young women who manage to feel like essentially the same character despite taking diametrically opposed reactions to Viola's arrival (one becomes instant Best Friends Forever while the other despises Viola and only helps her out of principle) and serve the exact same function in the story: get fridged in order to prompt Viola to action. Is it any less skeevy when a female character is fridged to further another female character's story instead of a male's? Somehow I doubt it.

At the climax of the novel, Mayor Prentiss also kills his son Davy, because Ness was worried he might be getting too subtle. Davy, of course, was in the middle of an awakening process and had almost become human, and his murder, along with sending the melodrama up to eleven (yet again), cut short a potentially interesting and enjoyable character arc. Looking at it that way, I suppose Davy had to go before he brought up the novel's enjoyment factor.

Davy's death is arguably the emotional high point of the book, but here Ness' “creative” spelling comes back to bite him in the arse. We have Todd the narrator standing over Davy's body, listening with tears in his eyes to the other's dying confession, and casually mentions hearing an “explozhun” in the distance. At that point, any pathos Ness had managed to achieve evaporated in a puff of abject silliness, and the whole scene instantaneously degenerated into unintentional hilarity. I'm given to understand, the technical term for this is “bathos,” or, if you're a fan of TV Tropes, “Narm.”

Final Thoughts

As one last method of annoying me, Ness spends the bulk of the book having Viola and Todd questioning each other's motivations for working for a despot and throwing in with terrorists respectively, and questioning each other's loyalty into the bargain. This ties into the theme of enemies in wartime becoming mirror images—with each side treating the other's atrocities as unforgivably monstrous while excusing its own atrocities as regrettably necessary. And it is equally alienating.

It also bears the distinction of playing to the cliché romance trope of misunderstandings cropping up between the lovers to cast doubt on their respective commitment. In other words: insufferable from two directions at once.

Nothing could make up for the excruciating alienation of the first 450+ pages, but I have to admit the ending, where Todd and Viola reconcile, agree to save each other like they always do, and proceed to lay a righteous smackdown on the Mayor is both sweet and greatly satisfying. Not good enough to be cathartic, but probably the best Ness could realistically have managed at that point.

In terms of sheer unreadability, The Ask and the Answer is the worst book of the trilogy, though it does have hands-down the best climax. It's probably the worst book in most other ways, too, but its awfulness is spread out over a space of 515 pages. There's no one moment where the reader stops, and—after double- and triple-checking to make sure that yes, they really did read something that abominably wrongheaded—says, “You know, I was with you more or less up to this point, but this part right here ruins it all.” For that, we shall have to look elsewhere …

Monsters of Men

In the final installment of the trilogy, Todd releases Mayor Prentiss to fight off a vicious attack by the Spackle. Meanwhile, a scout ship containing Viola's friends Simone and Bradley arrives on New World to prepare the way for the colony ships. Todd and Viola forge a reluctant alliance between the Mayor, Mistress Coyle, and the two scouts to protect the humans from the Spackle, and eventually secure peace. Naturally, this proves a difficult task, and divisions among the three groups constantly threaten to ruin the whole process.

What I Liked

I found Monsters of Men exponentially less excruciating than The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer. There is some amount of the protagonists (especially Todd) doing bad/incompetent stuff when they should know better, but unlike in the previous book there's a lot of other things going on, most of which aren't nearly so alienating.

I scored this from the library on audio, obliterating any concerns over spelling, although I did catch the guy narrating for Todd's pronunciation of “reckernize” a couple times. Listening to the audiobook may also have helped with the difficult bits, as they went by quicker and with less active participation on my part.

The three narrators all do a terrific job. Nick Podehl (Todd) took a little while to grow on me, probably because he does such a swell job of nailing down Todd's voice, and spelling aside, Todd's narrative voice is definitely an acquired taste. He does a fantastic Mayor Prentiss, though. I'd always imagined Prentiss speaking with an affably evil, faintly patronizing tone; Podehl's Prentiss is straight-forward and conversational, which arguably works even better.

Angel Dawe (Viola), apart from narrating like a pro, has a thoroughly lovely voice. The pleasure of listening to her is only marred towards the middle, when Viola develops an infection, and her dialogue is interrupted with constant fits of coughing.

Rounding out the cast is MacLeod Andrews narrating for the Return, a Spackle whom Todd saved in the previous book, and the only survivor of the Mayor's massacre. Andrews plays his role well, adopting a faintly unworldly voice which conveys the character's alien nature quite well.

For the last installment in a series with such a propensity for mowing down supporting characters, Monsters of Men actually has a fairly low body count among the characters we're supposed to sympathize with, and many of the most likable supporting characters do, in fact, survive. Moreover, I can think of three specific scenes where I was sure Ness was setting up to kill off Bradley, Lee, and Angharad respectively, and in the end none of those things happened. I find it kind of nice when an author can fake me out that way.

The last compliment I'm going to hand out is for the world-building. The Spackle are still a bit more human than the sci-fi hardliner in me would prefer, but Ness does a fabulous job of fleshing out their society. For instance, they refer to themselves collectively as the Land, and their leader is the Sky. This confused me at first, trying to differentiate between people and geographic markers, but then the Sky refers to the time of the first war, when “we were a different Land under a different Sky”—which is beautifully poetic if you ask me.

What I Disliked

You remember what I said about a surprisingly low bodycount? Well of course, Ness had to balance that out somehow, and being Ness, his solution naturally rates approximately 80 MegaBrooks on the predictability scale. No points for guessing that the only semi-reasonable authority figure in this book dies, only to be replaced by one of our young protagonists.

And while Ness aptly demonstrates how warfare is always the product of some combination of misunderstanding, misinformation, prejudice, paranoia, and demagoguery, sometimes he seems to be saying that it can still be necessary. Many people will agree with Ness on this point, but I don't and it bugs me. A lot. If warfare is predicated on lies and behavior which is the height of iniquity in all other circumstances—then surely there are other ways to find solutions to the issues warfare is supposed to resolve.

Then there's all the bollocks about leaders and followers. As might be expected from the villain of the piece, Mayor Prentiss has a very elitist view of human nature, insisting that most human beings deep down really want to be led—people like himself and Todd and Viola and a few others are the exceptions, the ones born to lead instead of follow. This is how he's able to control large groups of men through their Noise, and how Todd occasionally does the same to one or two at a time. Even after he's semi-reformed, Mayor Prentiss still believes a benevolent dictator who shapes the people's will through their Noise is the best kind of leader.

The problem is that the text bears him out on this point. With a rare handful of exceptions, the people of New World really do behave like sheep, unquestioningly throwing their support behind one charismatic leader or another. The only amount of independent thinking they ever display is deciding which charismatic leader to align with. In short, they behave exactly like the born followers the Mayor describes. Sure, controlling them through Noise is bad, but controlling them through demagoguery is only bad if it's evil people like the Mayor and Mistress Coyle doing it.

Speaking of the Mayor, though, Ness actually does something very interesting with him during the middle third of the book. With the help of the scouts—Simone and Bradley—Todd and Viola force the Mayor to help them try to make peace with the Spackle. Nobody trusts him, of course, and Mistress Coyle vehemently insists that he must be up to something.

But Mayor Prentiss really does seem to be helping out and genuinely seeking peace. After a while he starts talking of having been “redeemed.”[3] Todd doubts this, and a couple times tells the Mayor flat-out “yer not redeemable,” but with a little less conviction each time. It gets to the point where Todd chooses to save the Mayor's life over Simone's.

There comes a time when the main characters have got all their problems pretty much sorted out. They've made peace with the Spackle, with the fate of Mayor Prentiss being the only major sticking point; the political situation among the humans has died down—Prentiss is still around, but the colonists will be able to deal with him when they arrive in a few weeks; Viola has recovered, Todd has a new father figure; all-in-all, things are looking up.

The interesting thing would be to stop there; Ness has things approximately where he wants them anyway, and sorting out the remaining loose ends will entail some tough decisions with no easy answers. It leaves us with the question of the Mayor, the terrible ghoul built up over the course of the first two books, now redeemed like Darth Vader, and inconveniently alive following his redemption, unlike Darth Vader. What is his place in society now? What manner of punishment will the Spackle and human communities impose upon him for his atrocities? How much punishment should they impose? How will he reconcile those atrocities with his own conscience?

Well yes, Ness could do that. Or he could have Mayor Prentiss yell out “Surprise! I really was evil along! And now I'm going to restart the war and try to get every single human being on this planet killed off in glorious battle! Muahahahahahahaha!” and have Todd and Viola et al. reply “Ahhh! Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!” and proceed to stop him, though only after a dully predictable climax involving a forest fire, a flood, and retreading territory Ness has already covered amply over the course of the book. Which is precisely what he does.

As a humanist, I reject the notion that any human being is beyond redemption, so I admit I'm biased. But that objection aside, having the Mayor prove a villain in the end is exponentially less interesting from a narrative perspective. The previous two books built up Mayor Prentiss as horrifyingly powerful and completely devoid of redeeming virtues. Fair enough, I could name a couple billion such villains from literature, and Ness does a better job than many of making his villain believable and threatening. Such characters exist to be righteously killed off in one fashion or another, and they're deliberately kept unsympathetic so the reader can cheer unreservedly when they get their fatal comeuppance.

However, when an author deliberately raises the question “is this villain redeemable?” there are only two ways things can go. Option #1 “No,” tells the reader absolutely nothing, does nothing to enhance the story, and goes nowhere. It's the worst kind of lampshade hanging: drawing attention to a stock trope while simultaneously playing that trope by the numbers and completely failing to do anything new or interesting with it. Option #2: “Yes,” on the other hand, leads immediately to the question “What then?” This opens up a vast field of questions and possibilities to explore, as illustrated above.

So, of course, Ness goes for Option #1. He does throw me a halfhearted bone by having the Mayor magnanimously commit suicide to spare Todd from murdering him. I'll admit that's better than nothing, but it still comes directly after the Mayor's own acknowledgment that he's “not redeemable,” and, as our esteemed editor has pointed out, having a character make amends immediately before nobly sacrificing their life is a lot easier than having them live with the consequences. In short, it's a cop-out.

The big climactic conflagration set off by the Mayor's return to form is tediously predictable. The Spackle turn against the humans again, but their leader comes around just in the nick of time to stop hostilities from flaring up again. Both Spackle and human characters have to relearn the lessons they spent the last four hundred effing pages learning in the first place.[4] Todd, Viola, and the other named characters run around putting out fires. Lots of characters whom we neither know nor care about die in the ensuing fire and flood, and Haven gets destroyed and it makes no difference. Todd and the Mayor have a showdown that—apart from taking place on a beach instead of Haven city hall—is a recycle of their battle at the end of The Ask and the Answer, bringing nothing new to the table.

For decades, action-adventure readers have been conditioned to expect a big, apocalyptic climax and final clash of good and evil, and to have a villain who's thoroughly evil, although the option of one last altruistic gesture immediately before they die has grown increasingly popular in the last ten or twenty years. It would've made for a much more original story to have the surprise twist be that the plot ends at the point where the characters had things mostly worked out anyway, with no big catastrophes or confrontations, leaving Todd and Viola et al. with the thorny question of what to do with a reformed but still troublesome Mayor Prentiss. And yes, that is counter-factual criticism but frankly, I'm beyond caring.

All this was irritating, but it was hardly unexpected. Indeed, as I've just explained, it would've been surprising if Ness hadn't thrown all that stuff in, cheap and annoying as it was. Unfortunately, there's more. Much more.

Minority Warrior

The following section covers aspects of the book which gave me pause. While they don't offend me personally, I suspect they might offend others—notably those who don't share my privilege—and I feel it behooves me to give fair warning.

Many people have objected to the fact that, in Ness' universe, human men have Noise but human women do not. Towards the end of Monsters of Men one character says that women probably do have Noise, and they have to figure out how to access it. At no point does Ness ever explain why Noise manifests so radically differently in women as opposed to men, and one is forced to assume it must be because women and men are so fundamentally different as to be practically two separate species. Which, um, they aren't.

When Bradley begins manifesting Noise, it quickly transpires that, big surprise, he has the hots for Simone, who for whatever reason isn't interested. Lee also has a hopeless crush on Viola, as if you hadn't figured that out long since. Ness uses their conditions to explore unrequited love, just as he's previously used the Noise to explore frustrated erotic desire.

The thing is, the only characters depicted as experiencing unrequited love are male. The only characters depicted as experiencing erotic desire are male. Viola desires Todd emotionally, and he reciprocates, and I think there's a brief allusion to Todd thinking about her sexually, but no hint that Viola might have such thoughts for herself.

It smells faintly of Nice Guy Syndrome, as does Viola's conversation with Simone, encouraging the other woman to give Bradley a chance because “he's a good man.” Maybe I'm paranoid or getting off on playing More Feminist Than Thou or both, but I think it may be telling that Ness has Viola appeal to Simone in terms of a rational assessment of his good character, rather than his desirability as a boyfriend or lover.

And getting back to that low body count among the sympathetic characters, arguably the most prominent sympathetic character to die in the book is Simone herself. Simone is the leader of the two-person scouting party; strong and competent and resourceful and pretty damn cool. And the thing is, once both she and Mistress Coyle are dead, the only female character of any importance to the story is Viola. Next runner up is Todd's horse for heaven's sake. Contrast this with the six prominent, sympathetic male characters who also survive to the end. Bit of a gap, there.

I've also seen Ness criticized for failing to consider homosexuality in the earlier books. In Monsters of Men, two of the most prominent sympathetic characters had same-sex Love Interests—both of whom were fridged earlier in the series, so I'm not sure Ness is scoring many points there, either.

Text Bomb

Getting back to the climax, the Mayor throws himself into the sea and dies, and Todd and Viola share a joyful embrace on the shore, knowing that whatever happens now, everything is going to be okay. And then the Return shows up and semi-accidentally kills Todd.

Excuse me, my melodrameter just overheated again.

Okay, that's better. My first thought on reading this was that it had to be the single most gratuitous bit of sensationalism Ness has ever written, and keep in mind this is Patrick Ness we're talking about.

Then he launched into a tortuously drawn out[5] scene between Viola and the Return. Like the rest of the series, it's all overblown and takes five times longer than it ought to in a mishandled attempt to enhance tension. But for all that, there's some decent character development for both Viola and the Return, and it does serve to underline many of the trilogy's themes. It even manages to tie in Todd's murder of a helpless Spackle fisher in Knife—the Return absorbed Todd's guilt for that act through his Noise, and now he bears a similar guilt for a similar murder.

Not that any of this was strictly necessary. Ness had already explored those themes quite satisfactorily, and Viola's and the Return's character development basically amounted to relearning lessons they'd already learned. The sequence added nothing new, but it did sharpen the recycled material.

Yes, it was inane and drawn-out and dumbed-down and more melodramatic than Russell T Davies on steroids, acid, and meth all at the same time, but coming out of the sequence I grudgingly admitted that it was more than just Patrick Ness indulging in yet more cheap sensationalism.

… And then he pulled a J. K. Rowling. Turns out, Todd's alive.

What the f***?

What the f***ing f***ing f***ing f***ing f***ing f***ing f***ing f***ing f***ing f***ing f***ing f***?

Over on my livejournal, I coined the term “Text Bomb” to denote a development so unexpected and so ridiculous or awful or both that the reader's brain initially rejects it as impossible. In those terms, Todd's resurrection at the end of Monsters of Men is a Thermonuclear grade Text Bomb.

Mere words cannot describe the head-banging inanity of this move, but I'm damn well going to make them try.

I believe a number of people found Harry's resurrection in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows a cheap cop-out, but in my view, Todd's is much, much worse. My reason is that Rowling had long since squandered any thematic coherence she might once have had. Harry's death and resurrection are equally meaningless because there are no themes to Deathly Hallows, just Stuff Happening.

Whereas Patrick Ness knows how to carry a theme. Sure, he's hamfisted and his repertoire consists almost entirely of cheap tricks, but as Dan pointed out somewhere in the Girl Books for Girls series (I believe it was Part Four) the thing about cheap tricks is that they do work. It's the crassest, basest way to say what you have to say, but it gets the job done.

Harry's return in Deathly Hallows has no thematic consequences—it's just Rowling wanking. Todd's return in Monsters of Men goes back and nukes all the thematic and character development Ness poured into the preceding scene. The whole thing—the emotional high point of the book, and probably the series—instantly implodes when the linchpin which gave it its driving force (Todd's death) is pulled away. In that one moment, the entire trilogy lapses into farce.

Admittedly, Ness puts together a pretty good excuse for why Todd seemed dead without actually dying, but this does nothing to address the thematic mess Todd's return leaves in its wake. If Ness really felt he needed to include all that development for Viola and the Return he should have had the guts to give his scenario the conclusion it demanded and have Todd stay dead. If he truly couldn't bear to kill off his protagonist, then, as I've already pointed out, it would've been perfectly plausible from a thematic perspective to cut the action off after the Mayor's defeat and not raised the prospect of killing his protagonist in the first place.

Ness chose neither option; he went ahead and wrecked his own discourse instead.

The Canary Says

The Ask and the Answer is an excruciating read, constantly alienating the reader and dragging out its points ad nauseam. Monsters of Men is enjoyable if occasionally irritating, but its ending—when compared to the quality of the rest of the book—is one of the worst affronts to good literature ever published.

Maybe I'm being too harsh with Ness. He's obviously trying to be sophisticated and engage with some pretty complex ideas. In my view he sabotages himself by his heavy reliance on repetition and on sensationalism and grandstanding, but perhaps I give him too little credit. I found The Ask and the Answer just shy of unreadable, but people who are less bothered by protagonists doing wrong will probably have an easier time of it. And while the conclusion to Monsters of Men is a narrative travesty, people without my peculiar sensibilities may find it highly enjoyable despite its technical failings. If I really liked Todd rather than feeling mostly indifferent towards him, I'd probably cheer his resurrection even though it undermines everything Ness was trying to say.

Maybe I'm being too harsh with Ness, but I don't care. I'm not here to be fair, I'm here to be judgmental, and these books got right up my nose. My advice: stay away.

[1]Nonviolence: 25 Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea, by Mark Kurlansky.
[2]The Mayor's method of interrogation is essentially waterboarding, and it is unambiguously treated and referred to as torture.
[3]Granted, he attributes this to Todd's influence as if he were some sort of secular effing Messiah, which I didn't much appreciate.
[4]Having to learn the same lesson over and over again is realistic, and I expect it's possible to depict this process in narrative fiction without being incredibly fecking annoying, but the task is beyond Patrick Ness' abilities.
[5]What did you expect? Short and to the point?

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Comments (go to latest) at 19:51 on 2015-03-30
I was initially kind of surprised to see this in the axis of awful, but then I read your actual post and thought back to my own experiences with the books and it's perhaps not that surprising.

I read The Knife of Never Letting Go more than six years ago, loved it and ran out to buy the other two. But I found The Ask and The Answer's relentless pacing and breathless prose so exhausting I felt like I had to take a break before tackling Monsters of Men.

That break kept getting longer and longer, and now the book is sitting on a shelf in my room, unread. Now that I know where the story ultimately goes, I'm kind of glad I didn't bother.

I'm willing to bet that if I went back and reread the first two books I'd probably be far less taken with them- it's been long enough that my tastes have changed significantly, and at the time I was young enough that "it turns out that both sides are just as bad as each other" still felt interesting and somewhat revelatory. When the same theme comes up in fiction now (the example that comes to mind immediately is Bioshock Infinite) I find it trite and not at all useful or worth saying.
On the subject of making a story about how both sides are committing terrible acts without making your protagonists monsters or completely passive- I think perhaps the best way is the noir approach. In other words, have your protagonist be basically decent, but caught up in the world of powers far beyond them, and thus unable to enact more than a little change. A good example of this would be John le Carre- take The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Lemas is more or less trying to be an okay person, but his attempts can't compare to the ruthlessness of the powers he's caught between. Of course, there's a reason le Carre tends to have downbeat endings, and noirs tend to be bittersweet or downers.
Is it any less skeevy when a female character is fridged to further another female character's story instead of a male's? Somehow I doubt it.

I'm going to have to disagree with you there. I can see what you're getting at, but I don't think it's useful or even possible for a work of fiction to treat every character as equally valuable, for want of a better word, and everyone's story as equally important. Any attempt to try is likely to result in a shapeless, bloated mess. You have to decide whose story it is, and then you have to render everyone whose story it isn't subordinate to the person whose story it is.

To take the example that you've given, it sounds like the two young women are introduced solely for the purpose of getting killed later on in order to motivate Viola. And, to be honest, that sounds perfectly reasonable to me. If he had introduced them, developed them over several volumes, brought you to care about them and then killed them off in a perfunctory manner like poor Lian Harper then that would be something to complain about, to be sure, but I've always felt the real problem with fridging was not that it kills women but that in doing so it disrespects both the characters, the care and attention that other artists have put into them, and the love that they have inspired in the fans. None of which applies when the victim is a redshirt, and all of which conversely can apply when the character dies in a thematically valid conclusion to their character arc (looking at you, Adrian Tchaikovsky).
Robinson L at 22:30 on 2016-02-19
Okay, good point about the difference between killing off an established, long-running character to motivate another character as opposed to killing off a walk-on. (I may be misremembering here, but I thought I heard somewhere that the original Woman in a Refrigerator was always intended to die to motivate her boyfriend - the Green Lantern - to do something or other, but was still given a good whack of development so that the reader would feel her loss along with him.)

I'm not entirely convinced, but no counter-arguments immediately spring to mind. If somebody else wants to take up the argument, I may or may not agree with them, but I'll let the point stand for now.

I mean, it can also be skeevy if a) female guest and walk-on characters are frequently stuffed in the fridge to motivate the main characters, or b) the tone of the piece gives the implication that this death is especially tragic or heinous because the victim is female, but these aren't always the case.

That said, introducing a character, and developing them just enough to make the reader mildly invested in them as such, and then killing them off to motivate a main character is often a cheap-shot. In this case, from what I remember, there were plenty of other potential motivations for Viola to take the actions she takes. (Another case in point: The Night of the Doctor.)
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