Read August 2020 Recommended for Crouch fans ★ ★
Sadly disappointing and messy for a book about the mind-altering power of words and their impact on personal lives.
Barry does the dual timeline, dual narrative technique, so your enjoyment may vary based on tolerance. The current timeline is from a man, Wil, who is kidnapped as he is leaving the airport to meet his girlfriend, while a past timeline is from a young woman, Emily, who is recruited off the streets for her talking talents to apply for a ‘magic’ school.
As enticing as that may sound, it leads me to a digression about the role of ‘magic’ and schools in fantasy systems. In most fantasy–especially since the popularization of Hogwarts–there are magic schools that are about learning magic, and magic systems. This is not one of them. The beginning is about a young woman qualifying for a private school and adjusting to it. If you pick it up hoping to learn about different spells and how they work, you will be disappointed. Instead, this is more ‘superhero’ type, where people kind of just fledged into full skills and there’s not a lot of scrutiny how this might happen. In one spectacularly inaccurate example of ‘persuasion,’ Barry tries to show us how attention-getting on the street is the same as persuading someone to do something they wouldn’t normally do (baring one’s breasts count, as does subsequently claiming assault)
Emily is the only character that is fleshed out to any degree, and even that is suspect. We don’t learn much about her runaway history, and nothing about life before. Her stories are largely consumed with love interests or manipulation by men, but I feel like I didn’t gain any understanding as to why this was okay with her until (spoiler). As for the rest of the characters, they are inscrutable, a nice way of saying one-dimensional. Wil argues with his kidnapper, then goes along. Eliot, the kidnapper, is full of drive but the reader has very little clue why, particularly as the dialogue between he and Wil usually consists of Eliot telling Wil they will all die if they don’t do something Right Now. This dialogue is terrible, like they are reading from fortune cookies:
“‘Yes, I kill people, when the alternative is worse. That’s the world. That’s the reason you and I are still here.’
Wil looked away. ‘I’ll come with you. I’ll do what you say. But not because you are right.’
Eliot but the car in gear. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘Close enough.'”
To help us towards understanding the meta, Barry provides the reader with newspaper clippings, transcripts and, in one intrusive wall-breaking case, a (fictional) blog post:
“I just think it’s missing the point to get upset about bias in Fox News or MSNBC or whoever… relying on a single source of information means you can’t critically evaluate it. It’s like you’re locked in a room an every day I come in and tell you what’s happening outside. It’s very easy for me to make you believe whatever I want. Even if I don’t lie, I can just tell you the facts that support me and leave out the ones that don’t.”
The ending… oh, that ending. Just how Blake Crouch was that? Now I have more questions, like why a certain someone’s character was completely different (spoiler: Harry. How come the Harry that forgot his Australian life–although I’m not sure that should have happened–where did he think he grew up? –how did he turn into the kind of guy that asked questions all the time? And didn’t go to help people in trouble?). Actually, while it was emotionally satisfying, it felt even more sloppy in terms of the novel.
While it’s an interesting collection of concepts, it would have done much better with Peter Watts, who can speak science while wrapping concepts surrounding psycholinguistics and neurobiology up in a sci-fi plot. As it is, it’s more thriller with people that have abilities, then a commentary on linguistics and thought. I mean, I guess it is a commentary on linguistics and thought, but only to the point that Barry tells us it is, about every five pages. It might appeal to those who enjoy Blake Crouch and his thriller approach to sci-fi.
Sadly, I guess these words didn’t work on me.