Lexicon by Max Barry

November 29, 2013 Reviews 3 ★★★★

Lexicon by Max BarryLexicon by Max Barry
Published: June 25th 2013 by HachetteAU
Format: Paperback, 384 pages
Genres: Science Fiction
Source: Publisher
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4 Stars

Two years ago, something terrible was unleashed in an Australian mining town called Broken Hill. Thousands died. Few people know what really happened. Emily Ruff is one of them. She belongs to an elite organisation of 'poets': masters of manipulation who use language to warp others to their will. She was one of their most promising recruits until she made a catastrophic mistake: she fell in love.

This is one of the best science fiction books I’ve read this year – full of action and humans doing amazing things and plot twists. Lexicon is set in our world today, except that a catastrophic event has killed everyone in Broken Hill.

The book follows two protagonists – Wil, who has lost his memory and been kidnapped an enigmatic man who calls himself Tom Eliot, and Emily, who has been offered a chance at a different life at a weird school where all the teachers are named after poets and the subjects are advanced linguistics and neurochemistry. Through them readers are slowly shown a world where ‘poets’ – who can control other people by using certain words to trigger reactions in their brains – have unleashed something deadly into the world and are desperate to get back into Broken Hill to retrieve it. The problem is that they need someone who is immune to its power, and they believe they’ve found it in Wil. I enjoyed reading from both of their perspectives: Wil’s confusion is masterfully portrayed and although I thought Emily was a little too arrogant for my liking, they are both brilliantly realised characters.

The power of words is an interesting and exciting concept. The book drops readers into this world without any warning, however, and we are left to orient ourselves. Personally, I like this kind of storytelling, but it may frustrate some readers. Barry has chosen to tell this story by allowing the past to slowly unfold – not only are we following Wil and Emily in different times, we’re also treated to flashbacks and a few glimpses into other character’s lives. It’s a clever technique which allows the author to control what readers know and don’t know: some things were obvious to me and others took me completely by surprise.

The only negatives about the book are about my personal taste: there doesn’t seem to be anything inherently Australian about the book despite the author being Australian and much of the action being set here. In fact, the exclusion zone around Broken Hill after the disaster is mentioned to be 5 miles, however it’s highly unlikely that it would be reported as such in Australian publications (it’s very close to 8km – 8.04672 km to be exact). So either all the newspaper reports the author has included are written in America, or the book has been “Americanised” for some reason. Similarly, Wil and Eliot obtain a gun at one point from a trucker in Australia. Now I realise it is easy to get guns in some places around the world, but Australia isn’t one of them. They are illegal and highly restricted objects and it’s so very very unlikely that a random at a truck-stop would even have a gun, let alone sell it for some cash in some back alley deal. There is a black market for them, but the way this scene goes seems like it’s taken from some bad TV rather than a realistic look at how one would obtain a gun in Australia. Wil also says “I’m Australian; I know how to use a shotgun” at one point. But I’m an Australian and I don’t know how to use any firearm outside of an X-Box, and then only very badly, so I disagree with that blanket statement.

Lexicon is a high-octane adventure that I thoroughly enjoyed, especially because the action is well balanced by a clever plotline and great characters. I highly recommend this book to readers who enjoy science fiction thrillers, and will be looking out for more books by Barry in the future.

3 Responses to “Lexicon by Max Barry”

  1. Bec @ Ransom Reads

    I’m Australian and I don’t know how to use any kind of shotgun, not even a virtual one. I don’t even think I’ve ever seen one in real life 😛

    This is one of the books (and authors) my friend reads about and I think I might actually try to pick it up now. The concept of the poets sounds really interesting.

  2. Julia McKinley

    I’m a bit of a fan of Max Barry’s first book “Syrup” (published in 1999 but re-released recently to promote the movie based on the book), so I would recommend that as a next step. I didn’t know Barry did science fiction, as his earlier books were primarily based around the modern corporate world (I understand Jennifer Government may have some science fictiony elements, but I haven’t read it yet). Good for him, I’ll have to check out Lexicon 🙂

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