Book Review: Lexicon by Max Barry

Posted February 19, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Book Reviews / 0 Comments

Book Review: Lexicon by Max BarryLexicon by Max Barry
Genres: Fantasy, Thriller
Published by Penguin on June 18, 2013
Pages: 390
Format: Hardcover
Source: the library


At an exclusive school students are taught the art of coercion, harnessing the hidden power of language to manipulate the mind and learn to break down individuals without revealing their own emotions. The very best will graduate as "poets".

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 while a seemingly innocent man is brutally ambushed in an airport bathroom. Wil may be the key to a secret war between rival factions of poets and is quickly caught in their increasingly deadly crossfire. Pursued relentlessly, protected by the very man who first attacked him, Wil discovers that everything he thought he knew about his past is fiction. To survive, he must journey back to his past, discover who he is, and find out 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.

A fantasy thriller about the power of words as a weapon of mass destruction.

It’s won one award, the ALA Alex Award (2014), and been nominated for another, the Aurealis Award Nominee for Best Fantasy Novel (2013).

My Take
WOW. This was excellent! Love, betrayal, and greed for power fuel this story, and Barry drives you mad at the start with all the confusion, and it takes most of the book before he reveals what you think is the truth. Hah. This story has more twists and turns than a handful of jacked screws! He pulls you in from the beginning, forcing you to want to know what’s happening: Who is this guy? What has he done? Why are they after him?

Part of the confusion is Barry’s flipping back and forth in the timeline, and it works well at keeping you confused and questioning what’s happening. Yeah, it’s like this throughout. You’re constantly questioning. Trying to figure things out. And Barry simply turns it on you. Again and again. Normally, flipping into the past and into the future, back and forth, slipping in and out of various time periods drives me mad. But Barry makes this work—for the most part. At one point a particular someone dies, but Eliot seems to be off to Syria, after the final events in Broken Hill and this person seems to still be alive. So, yeah, I’m confused, and it’s all because of this weird flip-flopping. Oh, wait. It does get explained. Phew.

Early on Emily has sociopathic tendencies that are revealed by how she treats people. She’s ideal for this organization as she feels almost nothing. It’s all about her and her wants. But those unexpected twists get in the way and prove a point. One that even Lowell has to admit to. The brain tumor and “seeing God” was a nasty touch. And the perfect interpretation for that megalomaniac!

You’ll love Barry’s use of words, the terror he inspires with the power this organization wields with its threat to the everyman. You may see them coming, but you won’t know they’ve been.

Barry will have you lost in a maze of emotions and fears while you come to care about a very few characters. I find myself hoping there’ll be a sequel!

The Story
Survival. At first, it’s only about survival, then exploration with a desire to see how it works. Then love enters the picture.

It’s just a word. We all have them. Certain words that can be used to trigger a fugue-like state in anyone. Almost anyone.

And Emily will do everything for love, for words.

The Characters
Emily Ruff is a runaway, surviving by scamming tourists with games. Benny is the scam artist who has taken her in under his demanding wing.

Wil Parke is being hunted by men who think nothing of cutting out an eyeball. Cecilia is his girlfriend.

Virginia Woolf is the scariest poet along with Kathleen Raine, a poet who wrote about nature, who is just one of too many wicked and relentless agents, casting fear into the hearts of all. Tom S. Eliot will come to regret his earlier aid. Sylvia Plath is one of Yeats’ people.

Lee is the jerk who recruited Emily. Charlotte Brontë is in charge of the school. William Yeats is the leader of the American branch of their organization. Campbell is the cocky poet who enters Broken Hill. Isaac Rosenberg is an office mate in Neurolinguistics along with Raine. Patty Smith was one of her classmates. Masters is in control of the soldiers.

Fellow students include:
Sashona is one of Emily’s few friends, and Jeremy Lattern is the one she wants as a boyfriend.

Sarah is a waitress in a diner.

In Broken Hill…
Harry Wilson is a paramedic; Cheryl makes incredible sandwiches; Mary is the owner of Tangled Threads where Emily gets a job; Maude Clovis; Jim Fowler has been a cop for 20 years; Ian Chu is a surgeon; Jess is the daughter of a schoolteacher; Beth McCartney is the town librarian; and, Derek Knochhouse.

Medic Jennifer Neiland is part of the rescue effort.

Von Goethe, al-Zahawi, Bharatendu Harishchandra, Pushkin, and De Castro are representatives of the organization from other countries. Frost is in charge of security.

Poets are good with words. You won’t be able to resist. The Robert Lowell Institute of Psychological Research is the organization’s public face. An outlier is a person immune to the words.

The Cover
The cover is a deep gray, a mildly gradated gray radiating outward from around the yellow title. It and the white of the author’s name are superimposed on a raised background of letters and symbols that help convey the cold, analytical feel of this movement about words, this branch of knowledge, the Lexicon used to manipulate.

Reviewed by Kathy Davie, who is fast gaining followers in Goodreads and Amazon for her honest book reviews. Passionate about reading, writing, and editing, she searches the Internet for tips, tricks, and warnings with a keen interest in ideas that will foster reading in children as well as adults while aiding writers in their craft. Kathy blogs daily at KD Did It Takes on Books.

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