The List by Patricia Forde (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky)
Review copy provided by Netgalley.
Genres: Dystopian, Sci-fi, Drama, Futuristic
In the city of Ark, speech is constrained to five hundred sanctioned words. Speak outside the approved lexicon and face banishment. The exceptions are the Wordsmith and his apprentice Letta, the keepers and archivists of all language in their post-apocalyptic, neo-medieval world.
On the death of her master, Letta is suddenly promoted to Wordsmith, charged with collecting and saving words. But when she uncovers a sinister plan to suppress language and rob Ark’s citizens of their power of speech, she realizes that it’s up to her to save not only words, but culture itself.
The idea behind The List is an extremely compelling concept. Language is severely restricted in order to be functional without allowing for freedom of thought or belief. Devised by John Noa, it is an attempt to remove the ability for movements to form, for ideas to be created, and for beliefs to be born. Noa believes that The Melting, a planet-wide disaster, could have been prevented if not for language. Politicians who denied global warming used words to persuade and distract citizens from dealing with the problem.
It is a very relatable idea- just look at the 2016 presidential elections. This Wordwatchers blog tracked the use of language in the last presidential debate and explains how words can be used to sway and manipulate an audience. Trump did it so effectively that he is soon to become the most powerful man in the world.Against the backdrop of our own global climate, both politically and environmentally, The List is very fitting for our times. It’s exploration of both the importance and the danger of language is exceptional.
Aside from the obvious links between the concept in the novel and the real world, the use of List made me aware of my more personal beliefs about language. In the novel, when characters speak in List, I noticed that I would assume those characters had lower intelligence. This happened regardless of the concepts they were discussing or the ideas they were trying to communicate.
Of course, there are arguments that language does impact intelligence. Abstract concepts cannot easily be conceived of without a language to describe them. Nevertheless, we are still capable of having, understanding and applying knowledge without using words.
The List has many specific and more general opportunities for self-reflection on the part of the reader.There are many moments where the protagonist, Letta, is playing double-agent. Each time Letta must make a decision within these moments, I feel as a reader that I can’t help but think about how I would behave. Novels which encourage introspection are, in my opinion, quite important. You can learn a lot about yourself when reading a book.
Unfortunately, despite the unique concept of the novel, I feel Fordge promises something she doesn’t quite deliver on. The plot itself is not, perhaps, as intricate as it could have been. For instance, there are brief mentions of the ‘Wordless’, people who have lost the ability to speak entirely. These people are discussed with fear and confusion, and I was hoping for a moment when they would prove themselves worthy of more. Unfortunately, this moment never came.
Futuristic dystopian novels are becoming very popular. I believe for an author to be truly successful, they need to step away from the obvious story – a restrictive society which is disrupted due to a desire for more freedom. There was a pleasing reveal about two-thirds of the way through the novel regarding Letta’s family, but aside from that there were very few surprises.
As well as the somewhat unimaginative storyline, I struggled a little with Letta as our main character. For starters, I found I wasn’t able to easily decide on her age. We are told she is under eighteen, but to me that didn’t help much in really understanding her. There is a big difference between 13 and 17 years of age. This difficulty in placing her age made it tricky to completely relate to her.
Throughout the novel there are hints of her affections for another character, but these are not fully explored. Are these feelings the earliest flutterings of attraction within a young teenage girl, or more fully-fledged emotions emanating from a young woman? Rarely mentioned, and not at all acted upon, I think this plot device was thrown in for the sake of it. There is little to no chemistry between the two characters, and they don’t even speak to each other particularly frequently.
On top of this non-romance, I was also disappointed in the relative rarity of moments which encouraged me to feel for the characters. I believe Forde did attempt to show the strength of connections between her cast, but for whatever reason I found it difficult to empathise with them when characters were in danger. As a result, I was interested in what happened to the characters, but I didn’t really care what happened.
I would recommend The List for fans of the dystopian novel who want something new, but don’t expect to be wowed. An intriguing concept which could have been more fully explored.
The List (alternative title: The Wordsmith) is released on 8th August 2017.