ARC Review: Max Barry – Lexicon


Title: Lexicon
Author: Max Barry
Rating: 4 / 5

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 Brontë, 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 tow nof 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.

How do I begin this? Better yet, how do I talk about this book without spoilers? Lexicon took forever for me to read (embarrassingly so!), but it was not a bad book at all (4 out of 5 stars? Come on, now). Although it was only 400 pages (at least, in my e-reader it is), it felt like it was over a thousand pages. This is not in any way a knock against Max Barry, whose writing I’ve enjoyed since I first read Jennifer Government in the fall/winter of 2008. Instead, it’s a compliment. The book is weighty in its content, and is very thorough.

Lexicon spins a beautiful story between just a few main characters, Wil and Emily, and spins them together in a beautifully spiraling story that weaves past and present together almost seamlessly.

The novel begins right in the middle of the story, with a man named Wil who has hardly any background–we come to find out that he can’t really remember who he is, although we aren’t sure why. Next, we meet Emily, a young teen hustler, earning money for herself with card tricks. What follows is the story of Emily’s education at a covert academy and beyond, and Wil’s journey to find out exactly who he is and how he fits into the bigger picture.

To say anything more about the plot would be to invite massive spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that.

The novel revolves around words–how they’re used, perceived, how connotations change over time, how languages evolve, etc. It’s actually brilliant in its evolution. I’m not just saying this because I really enjoy Max Barry’s work, but also because he executes such an idea flawlessly. The only true issues I had were of the formatting variety, and I chalked a lot of it up to my copy being an e-ARC, and not a final version.

I have only one more thing to say about this novel, and it’s the pattern with which it’s written. Barry’s format is brilliant, at first leaving each character with his or her own large chunk of narrative that, as the story winds towards its climax, gradually becomes shorter and shorter until the two converge. It’s a style choice I’ve seen before, mostly with Stephen King’s work (especially in The Dark Half and Needful Things), and the result is a sense of urgency and a sense of the fast pace of the novel that, if another style had been used, would probably not be there.

To put it mildly, I really enjoyed Lexicon. I plan on revisiting Jennifer Government, as well as Barry’s other novels, in short time.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. The opinions herein are my own, and were not influenced by the author or publisher in any way.


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