REVIEW: The Naming Song by Jedediah Berry

The Naming Song by Jedediah Berry is a richly imagined literary fantasy that serves as a meditation on the power of names and naming.

The Naming SongNaming has been an integral part of fantasy literature for decades. The foundation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s magic system in Earthsea is based on the knowledge of so-called true names, which capture the language of creation and the wisdom of the creator. Le Guin’s emphasis on true names had an enormous impact on subsequent fantasy literature, such as The Naming by Alison Croggon and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. More recently, the magical power of language is the raison d’être of R.F. Kuang’s Babel.

Reverence for language and the power of naming is as old as humanity itself, nearly ubiquitous across world religions and folklore. Creation is inexorably linked to language, as evident in the opening verse of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Moreover, early in the Book of Genesis, God endows Adam with the power of naming, allowing him to bestow names on each living creature.

With The Naming Song, Jedediah Berry constructs an entire world around this power of naming. Berry develops a complete mythology around naming, including diviners who discover or create new words and couriers who deliver those words to the populace. Diviners and couriers have a longstanding rivalry about who has the more important role. While the secretive diviners perform their work behind the locked doors of a train car, couriers must traverse all corners of the world to deliver these new words where they are most needed.

Mystery and danger in the world of The Naming Song come from the presence of unnamed things, since without words there is no meaning. Part of the problem is recognizing when something doesn’t yet have a name:

“How many times each day do we fail to see the unnamed things right in front of us? Or worse…the unnamed things lurking within. But you see them, somehow. You seek them out, take hold of them, bind them with words.”

Although The Naming Song overflows with imagination, the story never quite escapes the arbitrariness of its internal logic. The sense of danger always feels muted because the world is never truly real. Despite the undeniable beauty of Jedediah Berry’s prose, I found it difficult to form an emotional connection with the characters, who feel like actors playing a theatrical role instead of being fully realized individuals.

In summary, The Naming Song is a richly imagined world, and I applaud Jedediah Berry for his unbounded creativity. At the same time, I hoped to discover more emotional depth and complexity in the story’s dramatis personae.

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John Mauro

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

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