Book Review: “The Word Exchange” by Alena Graedon

Warning: If you have not read “The Word Exchange” by Alena Graedon, do not read this review if you do not want spoilers!

I’m back with another book review, and this time it’s “The Word Exchange” by Alena Graedon! Here’s a summary so we know what it’s about:

“In the not-so-distant future, the forecasted “death of print” has become a reality. Bookstores, libraries, newspapers, and magazines are things of the past, and we spend our time glued to handheld devices called Memes that not only keep us in constant communication but also have become so intuitive that they hail us cabs before we leave our offices, order takeout at the first growl of a hungry stomach, and even create and sell language itself in a marketplace called the Word Exchange.

Anana Johnson works with her father, Doug, at the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), where Doug is hard at work on the last edition that will ever be printed. Doug is a staunchly anti-Meme, anti-tech intellectual who fondly remembers the days when people used email (everything now is text or videoconference) to communicate—or even actually spoke to one another, for that matter. One evening, Doug disappears from the NADEL offices, leaving a single written clue: ALICE. It’s a code word he devised to signal if he ever fell into harm’s way. And thus begins Anana’s journey down the proverbial rabbit hole . . .

     Joined by Bart, her bookish NADEL colleague, Anana’s search for Doug will take her into dark  basements and subterranean passageways; the stacks and reading rooms of the Mercantile Library; and secret meetings of the underground resistance, the Diachronic Society. As Anana penetrates the mystery of her father’s disappearance and a pandemic of decaying language called “word flu” spreads, The Word Exchange becomes a cautionary tale that is at once a technological thriller and a meditation on the high cultural costs of digital technology.”

The worldbuilding for this book was unfortunately quite confusing from beginning to end. The Memes were easy enough to understand, but literally everything else is hard to catch onto. A lot of different terms and such were used with either barely any explanation at all or with explanations that could be far less wordy.

The book is told from the alternating first person POVs of Anana and Bart/Horace, employees of the NADEL (i.e. the North American Dictionary of the English Language), the last known printed Dictionary. The books is basically both characters’ journal entries in recollecting the series of events that led them to an obscure present time where certain details of their whereabouts are withheld from the reader (and revealed only at the end). The only thing that is disclosed is that the world has been infected by a “word flu”, a virus that has led to the decay of the English language, through man’s absolute dependence on technology.

I thought the alternating point of views were not always made clear enough, at least not in the beginning of the book. This made it quite jarring for me when reading, because when I switched from Anana’s first person POV to Bart/Horace’s third-person POV, I had no idea whose point of view it was until two or three pages into that other person’s chapter. This got easier overtime, but still difficult to adjust to in the beginning.

The symbolism throughout the book felt forced, rather than it coming naturally enough to be understandable, but it made a decent effort. I wanted to facepalm a lot at Anana’s actions throughout the book, though, because of the following:

  1. Someone tells her not to use the Meme (the evil handheld device). She uses the meme.
  2. She sees an assembly line of incoherent, sickly workers in the subbasement of the building where her father disappeared from. What does she do? She tries on the creepy implant all of them are wearing.
  3. Her ex-boyfriend who dumped her unceremoniously once he struck it rich, comes to her doorstep evidently sick with the mysterious virus. What does she do? She lets him in.

Her lack of realization at how bad things can be if she does the dangerous things reminds much of how foolish Scarlett from “Caraval” was for just stumbling everywhere for clues rather than looking things thoroughly, and this highly annoyed me as a result.

Overall, I’m rating this book 1 out of 5 stars because of the not-so-smart protagonist, the forced symbolism, and unclear worldbuilding.

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