The List by Patricia Forde

The List
Patricia Forde
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 368 pages
Review by Katie Gray

In the city of Ark, food, water and words are tightly rationed. The world as we know it has ended, the sea levels have risen, and in the last known bastion of civilisation the people must speak the new language, List, or be expelled into the forest. Care of the List, some five hundred words and falling, is in the hands of the city wordsmith, Benjamin, and his apprentice Letta.

One day Benjamin sets out into the wilderness on a routine word-finding expedition – and never returns. Left alone, Letta takes in an injured boy, Marlo, who she soon realises is one of the Desecrators, a mysterious band of terrorists who seek to take down Ark and List. And of course, through Marlo Letta begins the process of unlearning the truths she’s been taught her whole life.

Billed as Fahrenheit 451 meets The Giver, The List (first published as The Wordsmith in 2015) doesn’t quite live up to that pedigree, but it’s an enjoyable read with a strong, simple message: language is vital, art is vital, and their destruction is the destruction of humanity itself. There’s something to be said for this clarity of moral purpose, especially in the current political climate – sadly, The List’s central anti-authoritarian, anti-propaganda themes resonate more strongly now that on its initial publication.

The city of Ark and the daily lives of its residents are sketched very well, its infrastructure and logistics, and in particular the work of the wordsmiths. They collect and compile words, recording them in a card catalogue for preservation. Special lists are produced for people in technical professions; ‘pumped’ is reserved for those who work with water. When a citizen of Ark grows old, they sometimes ‘donate’ their words to the wordsmith. Speaking non-List words is illegal: fifteen infractions and you’ll be exiled.

Unfortunately, the wider world of The List is less convincing. There’s just enough information given about the history of Ark to make it implausible. A little less, and one could accept this new status quo at face value, but as it is I struggled to believe that anyone would really go along with List. Ark’s founder, John Noa, believed that language was the root of humanity’s evil. This is, to put it bluntly, patently bonkers. Do the people of Ark really believe him? Are they playing along out of fear? Some combination of the two? It’s never properly explained, and Letta’s faith in Noa, so central to the novel, isn’t fully convincing.

There are also hints throughout the novel of a romance brewing between Letta and Marlo, which I found somewhat unnecessary. They have little in the way of genuine, person-to-person interaction, and I didn’t feel much chemistry. If the romance was intended, it isn’t convincing, and it feels – as is too often the case – that as male and female leads of course they must be paired up. Also, must we really be reminded every time he appears that Marlo smells like sage?

Those issues aside, The List is an enjoyable novel with an intriguing premise, a solid moral message, and some great world-building. I don’t know if Patricia Forde has plans for a sequel, but I would absolutely read one – it would be great to see this world and its characters developed further. 

First published in Shoreline of Infinity issue 8.