Book Review: The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus


flame alphabet

The Cover Artleaving the sea

Its not a good thing when after reading a book, I’m most excited to talk about the cover art (see above), but the story was mediocre and the cover stands out. I love the simple, eye-catching design and colors. My first impression was that the design looks like flames which makes sense with the title. When I showed my boyfriend the cover, he thought the design resembled the letter A which is also representative of the title! A great cover in my opinion, especially when I found out the design carried over to another of Marcus’s books, Leaving the Sea, whose cover design resembles waves (see right).


Language is power/life. Even in our own world, I don’t think many people would disagree with that statement, but Ben Marcus flips that saying upside down in his novel The Flame Alphabet. In that world, language is death. A middle-aged father of one named Sam opens the book by describing how spoken language is making everyone in the community sick. Everyone except children, that is. Although experts know that language is the cause, no cure is known. Soon, the written word becomes deadly as well. Families, including Sam, his wife, and his daughter, limit their speech to the bare essentials. Every night, Sam turns his kitchen into a laboratory, desperately trying to find a cure for this disease as his wife sits silently beside him as his test patient.

As the deadly illness spreads throughout the world, language is slowly eliminated. Children, who are not affected by the illness, are taken away by the bus load by parents who can no longer survive in their presence. Sam is forced to leave his wife and child and finds himself in a silent community of scientists individually trying to cure this epidemic. As the entire world has fallen into complete silence to survive, Sam redirects his research to test every ancient, modern and imagined script that might allow humans to read without physical torture.


The novel is written in a first-person POV by our main character, Sam. He tells the story with an informational tone which fits the story because he is a scientist trying to record a world-changing event that most people are unable to document because they can’t write or speak.  Near the end of the book, Sam hints that he expects future humans to use his perspective to study and understand how this language epidemic transpired.


Although the informational tone of the narrator was successful in helping get the message across, it distances the reader from the characters. I had no emotional connection with any of the characters and a large part of that was due to the fact that very little of the characters’ emotions came through in the writing. Another reason for my lack of connection to the characters was that we knew very little about them. We assume our main character, Sam, has some kind of science background because of all the research he pursues but we are never told what his job or background is. We know nothing about his family outside that he has a wife and daughter, and besides their first names, we don’t know much about them either. We don’t know what they love or fear, we don’t know anything about their past, they only thing we are told through the 300 page book is how the characters dealt with this epidemic. The story is written in facts.

The Bigger Picture

Although I did rip the characterization above, I realize Marcus (as well as his main character) are trying to tell a story that is much bigger than the present characters. It’s a story about the power of language and how humans’ ability to communicate sets us apart from the larger, animal world. If humans couldn’t communicate, how would we share our feelings or our knowledge? How would we progress in the world? Would community be possible? Is it possible to love someone without sharing language? These are a few of the questions The Flame Alphabet makes you ask, and if that was Marcus’s desire for writing the book, he succeeded.


Although this book was not my cup of tea, it was well-written and had a strong message. I didn’t hate the book, but I can’t think of anyone I would recommend it to. Maybe someone interested in how language affects community. 2 stars.


About Sarah JS

Aspiring writer, lover of words, book nerd, working editor, and permanent student of the world

Posted on November 19, 2014, in Book Review and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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