Lexicon – Max Barry

About the Book

At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren’t taught history, geography, or mathematics–at least not in the usual ways. Instead, they are taught to persuade. Here the art of coercion has been raised to a science. Students harness the hidden power of language to manipulate the mind and learn to break down individuals by psychographic markers in order to take control of their thoughts. The very best will graduate as “poets”, adept wielders of language who belong to a nameless organization that is as influential as it is secretive.

Whip-smart orphan Emily Ruff is making a living running a three-card Monte game on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organization’s recruiters. She is flown across the country for the school’s strange and rigorous entrance exams, where, once admitted, she will be taught the fundamentals of persuasion by Bronte, Eliot, and Lowell–who have adopted the names of famous poets to conceal their true identities. For in the organization, nothing is more dangerous than revealing who you are: Poets must never expose their feelings lest they be manipulated. Emily becomes the school’s most talented prodigy until she makes a catastrophic mistake: She falls in love.

Meanwhile, a seemingly innocent man named Wil Jamieson is brutally ambushed by two strange men in an airport bathroom. Although he has no recollection of anything they claim he’s done, it turns out Wil is the key to a secret war between rival factions of poets and is quickly caught in their increasingly deadly crossfire. Pursued relentlessly by people with powers he can barely comprehend and protected by the very man who first attacked him, Wil discovers that everything he thought he knew about his past was fiction. In order to survive, must journey to the toxically decimated town of Broken Hill, Australia, to discover who he is and why an entire town was blown off the map.

As the two narratives converge, the shocking work of the poets is fully revealed, the body count rises, and the world crashes toward a Tower of Babel event which would leave all language meaningless. Max Barry’s most spellbinding and ambitious novel yet, Lexicon is a brilliant thriller that explores language, power, identity, and our capacity to love–whatever the cost.

390 pages (hardcover)
Published on June 18, 2013
Published by Penguin
Author’s webpage


Lexicon is a book I’m having a hard time reviewing. It wasn’t horrible, but it’s one of those books where the sum does not equal the brilliance of its parts. The idea is brilliant, the writing is solid, but the execution is somewhat flawed, and left me wanting, despite my overall enjoyment of the book as a whole.

Lexicon plays on a premise that any lover of language will enjoy. Words have power, literally, and Max Barry gets into the science of this magic system quite in depth. In fact, he does so over and over and over again throughout the book. While some of the ideas regarding how this magic system works are quite scientific and a little complex, the reiteration of the details nearly continuously got exhausting. I was hit over the head a little too frequently with all the nuances and details that went into how words work, the Poets, the school system, etc. By the time I was done, I felt like I was reading more about psychology than magic. I like magic systems to be logical and have science behind them, but I still like them to feel, well, magic.

Furthermore, regarding the magic system, some of the power words that Barry sprinkles throughout the book are just plain ridiculous looking and completely unpronounceable. They look like someone closed their eyes and just scrambled a bunch of random letters together. That takes away from the believability of the magic system and the seriousness of it. Honestly, how am I supposed to take “zttkcu” seriously?

Perhaps that’s putting the cart before the horse a bit, because despite my quibbles right off the bat, Lexicon does a lot of things right. The magic system is engaging (despite my issues with how frequently I was given the details as to how it works). The characters are interesting, in a somewhat distant and scientific sort of way. The story is part who-done-it, and part catastrophe, but completely engaging and moves at a fast clip. Barry obviously thought out his world, and how all the pieces of it fit together to make a whole, fascinating speculative fiction novel. No matter the issues I have, all of this works together and clicks into place nicely to create a fantastic, quick moving novel that will absorb the reader and entertain them endlessly.

The problems really start when I pick the novel apart. I already picked on the magic system a bit. The other issue I had was with the characters. There are a few main characters, Emily being the one that most readers will probably focus on, and like the most. Emily starts out as a hard luck street kid who gets chosen for a really special school which teaches the use of the magic system I described above.). Part of the problem here is what I mentioned about the magic system above. There was so much scientific reiteration on how the magic system functions that it almost permeates all the levels of the book. This causes a divide between the readers and the main characters. Emily is interesting, but I never quite connected with her on the level I like to connect with characters. Every time I felt myself really getting into her character, I was sidetracked with another scientific/detailed explanation of something that just popped me out of the zone a bit.  That’s not just in regards to Emily, but with all of the characters. They are all interesting, their stories are compelling, but they never really attain a depth or ground past the magic system and the related drama that immerses them. To put it simply, I like to be able to picture characters living lives beyond that which I read about in the book. I just can’t do that with any of the characters in Lexicon.

The distance from the characters is unfortunate for many reasons, but the truth is, Emily’s story has the potential to be an absolutely compelling one. Disaster seems to follow this kid, and the ending is kind of bitter sweet in its own way. Emily’s story, and her interesting path to her own unique brand of some sort of redemption really is a good one. However, I just never got beyond thinking, “Huh. Cool.” When I easily could have been unable to tear myself from her, or her story. That is, probably, the thing that I lament most about Lexicon.

Despite it all, Barry does have a knack for writing. His descriptions are creative and rather inventive. He really brings the landscape and the emotional struggles his characters face to life for the reader. He fills his plot with artful tension that will often have readers on the edge of their seats. The book moves at a nice clip, though Lexicon is a little slow starting. It is full of twists and turns. Many of them will be rather predictable, but some will surely surprise you.  Perhaps one of the biggest problems, which also was probably a key instrument in making me feel slightly divorced from this book and its characters, was the switch from past to present in the narrative. The switch between the two is never clear and it was probably about half way through the book before I even realized I was reading about things that happened in two different time periods. There was an “ah ha” moment where I realized what was happening and everything became so much clearer, it’s just unfortunate that it took so long for that to happen. Maybe I’m slow on the uptake, but it is jarring and that jarring feeling surely did help me feel distanced from the work overall.

Lexicon is one of those books that has a fascinating premise, fantastic writing, a wonderful, mysterious plot and a magic system that I could just die for. Everything I just said could spiral this book to five star realms, but the execution just didn’t work. The magic system was unique, but clunky. A slightly clumsy narrative made me feel divorced from the characters and much of the world and plot. These might seem like small issues, but the two worked well together to make Lexicon a wonderful, and absolutely frustrating read. Max Barry is a hell of a writer and can turn a phrase with the best of them. I just wish Lexicon had been a bit tighter.


3/5 stars


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