Pub. Date: August 1, 2017
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (Thank you, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky!)
Summary: 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.
Genre: Middle Grade, Dystopia
There are readers who know what they like and stick to one particular genre. There are others who read everything, bouncing around from topics and styles. I’m definitely someone who enjoys branching out and trying new authors and genres – sometimes it works and I discover fantastic books I otherwise wouldn’t have picked up (I absolutely loved Karl Schroeder’s Lockstep, a hard Sci-Fi space opera that relied heavily on math). Sometimes, like with The List, I’m left disappointed and confused.
When the world nearly came to an end during the Melting, a massive flood that swallowed entire cities, the Ark became a safe haven. Determined to recreate civilization as how he saw fit, John Noa laid down guidelines, strict rules. Two government-provided meals a day, each November there’s a festival and it’s during this festival that the cobbler decides who deserves a new pair of shoes. If the pair you own can be patched and deemed acceptable for another year, that’s it. New garments are only made once the wearer grows out of them (dresses, for example, need to come a few inches above the knee before they’re considered too small and a new one is ordered).
Noa’s biggest, most radical idea however, is the List, a set of 500 cards, each labeled with a sanctioned word. If a word isn’t on the List it’s not allowed to be spoken. The only exception is if someone is in a particular trade (a Smith or a Carpenter, for example). In that instance, they’ll granted a few extra words specific to their craft. Anyone caught speaking List is immediately banished.
As a Wordsmith apprentice, it’s Letta’s job to provide the citizens of Ark with their Lists as well as discover and archive old words, words no longer deemed appropriate. When her master dies, Letta becomes the next – and final – Wordsmith and it’s in her new role that she uncovers an evil plan to do away with language forever.
I really wanted to like this one – a civilization that survives on only 500 words, a plot to suppress language forever?? It sounded great! Unfortunately, I think this was a case of the idea simply getting away from the author and some logistics that didn’t make much sense. The summary mentions the Ark set in a post-apocalyptic, neo-medieval world. In reality, this is only a generation or two after the Melting. MANY people who were around then are still alive, still secretly teaching their children old words. Noa ordered a list of approved names, yet it didn’t seem to matter since those who were alive during the Melting are allowed to keep their old names. Noa tries to enforce the List, but there are scores of people who still remember the old way of speaking and have been teaching the words to their children (at one point Letta remarked on how the schoolteacher was constantly reprimanding children for not speaking List).
There were minor details that would have felt more at home in a fantasy novel set centuries in the past or future rather than just a few decades from now. Six bells, twelve bells instead of six o’clock or twelve o’clock. The term stride instead of…inches? Feet? I couldn’t quite tell. Music, art, literature, they’ve all been banished (though of course the nefarious Desecrators have amassed quite a collection of artwork and instruments). I didn’t find this at all believable – The List is only a few (if that!) decades in the future, yet these people were okay with paring down their vocabulary to a few hundred words, getting rid of their books, their movies. Like I said, it would have been more suited to a different time period than a handful of years from the present day.
Another thing I struggled with was Letta’s age. I couldn’t figure out how old she was supposed to be. At one point she recalls a school friend who passed away when they were 12, so she’s obviously older than that. Then there was a character, Werber (lol that was seriously one of Noa’s approved names? okay), who has his heart set on Letta and says he wants to “mate with her” when she turns 18.
The List sounded like a fun, action-packed read, but I found myself more confused than intrigued. The apocalyptic ideas didn’t seem plausible to me and felt better suited to a story set centuries from the present day rather than just a handful of years. The entire time I was reading, I was struggling with the logistics (not to mention List-speak) and never became fully invested in the story or characters – and I’m honestly not quite sure just who the target audience is. It’s a Middle Grade novel that missed its mark.