After struggling to write my review of The Ask and the Answer, I have just found some notes on it stored on my phone. Rather than trying to redo anything, I think I’ll just post them here.
I've been struggling with this and unable to figure out why. Now at about 2/3 through, I think I'm finally figuring it out.
Things hadn't been too bad all around up to this point. Disturbing, yes. Worrying, yes. But still borderline okay. In many other books, this might be the point where rescue arrives, saving us from all the moral and practical dilemmas to come.
But Ness isn't doing it this way.
The underlying sense of doom that made the early parts slow but with an inevitable portent of growing disaster may be what made reading the book so difficult.
The Mayor is a master manipulator who can twist and spin everything to make it come out sounding the way he wants it too. He's been especially doing it to Todd and Viola until they both find themselves where they have very few choices but to make the decisions others want them to make. He's creepy and freaky and a very, very nasty villain who makes me want to shudder.
Now, at 2/3 through, the boot has fallen and the worst is beginning to happen. The sense of doom has been proved to be correct. In a way, this has made reading it easier as we can just get on with it now.
The Mayor has done that evil thing where he's turned life into a fascist dictatorship but step-by-step convincing the populace these measures are for the better, when it is clear to the reader at least that this is far from true. And he's doing really awful things in the background.
The Ask is clearly very much based on the Inquisition and it is very easy to see parallels to Nazi Germany. I'm not a history buff and generally only know about things as they appear in popular knowledge, but the old Mayor Ledger also seems to have a very Chamberlain-esque feel about him.
Todd is trapped in this. He's been manipulated emotionally (and occasionally physically) into the place the Mayor wants him to be and he's going along with things out of a sense there's no escape. He's not pleased by what the Mayor's doing but sees no solution. He's turning himself off in order to cope. His triumph will be to turn on again and make Todd's decisions rather than the Mayor's decisions when the time comes.
As for Viola, she's also been tossed into a position where her choice has largely been made for her. She can see the evil that is being fought but she is still clear-eyed enough to see that the issue isn't simple and the possibility clearly remains that stopping the Mayor may have to be followed by stopping Mistress Coyle.
At this point Viola seems to be more on the side of good - although not really through any action of her own - but I rather suspect there's still some plot twists to come.