The Word

One of the reasons I’m interested in the subject of Welsh Writing in English is to enable me to track down Welsh science fiction and fantasy. There have been a few science fiction novels written in Welsh. Not all of them have been translated into English. There are also Welsh people who are famous in the SF&F community: Al Reynolds, Jo Walton and Gareth Powell, for example. There are Welsh immigrants you will have heard of too, including Jasper Fforde, Stephanie Burgis and Tim Lebbon. Mostly these folks are unknown on the Welsh literary scene. But there are also people writing SF&F in Wales, and being published in Wales, who seem completely unknown in the wider SF&F world.

One such writer is JL George. A copy of her debut novel, The Word, was thrust into my hands at the AWEE conference (thanks Kirsti!). The book won the Rubery Book Award, which is an award for self-published books and books from small presses, in 2022. The Word is published by Parthian, a well-respected Welsh publisher that also does a lot of translations. I have a collection of Slovak fantasy stories that they did on my TBR pile.

I don’t know why George elected to go with a small Welsh mainstream publisher rather than an SF&F press, but I suspect it is because The Word is very much a Brexit novel. The subject matter would have been unpalatable to a London publisher, and impenetrable to one outside of the UK. This is a shame, because the book deserves to be much more widely read.

The Word is set in the near future in what Britain is likely to become if the Tories win the coming election, and was probably influenced by 1984. ‘Foreigners’ of all sorts are viewed with deep suspicion. We have always been at war with Europe (and occasionally random streets get bombed as an example of ‘European aggression’). The internet, and computers in general, were heavily restricted and eventually banned. Christian belief is becoming a social necessity.

Into this, George tosses some teenage mutants. Not, you will understand, people with fantastical powers who run around in gaudy costumes saving humanity. There is one sole mutation. It gives the mutant the power to force others to obey. If you use The Word, people will do what you tell them.

Nor is there a lovely old mansion in Westchester County where kindly Professor Xavier helps his young pupils come to terms with their abilities. Instead there is The Centre, a grim government establishment somewhere on the Welsh borders where mutant kids are brought in ‘for their own good’ and clipboard-armed people in white coats do experiments on them to see if The Word can be deployed in the service of the government.

The story switches back and fore in time as we discover something of how the world of the novel came to be, and get some backstory on the four inmates of The Centre: Rhydian, Jonno, Rachel and Cadi. We also get to meet May, the deaf teacher who has been employed to tutor the kids, and Irena, a Polish woman searching for a lost daughter. All of this is brought together in a satisfying way at the end.

From a science fiction point of view, there’s not a lot innovative about the book. Its portrayal of post-Brexit Britain as a small-minded, bigoted country, isolated from the world and in thrall to a far-right government is, however, the most brutal I have yet seen. For that alone, The Word deserves to be more widely read. In addition, George has that talent that all novelists wish for: the ability to keep you reading because you desperately want to know what happens next.

book cover
Title: The Word
By: J L George
Publisher: Parthian
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
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