Review: Lexicon by Max Barry

lexicon_usa_hb_bigI listen to too many podcasts.  I think I’m up to seven of them at this point (not including the sub-podcasts that exist under the Homebrewed Christianity family).  I pretty much just get around to them whenever I get a chance, but the one I find myself making more time for (and impatiently waiting for the next episode) is Book Riot. The whole podcast centers around the whole world of books, so you get news, author stuff, new books, old books, whatever they serve up (and it’s always good!).  They also have a Quarterly package that I subscribe to (my wife calls it the nerdiest package you can get by mail), that came chock full of writer/reader nerd goodies, including a cerebral thriller in line with the package’s theme: “The power of words.”  This is what brings me to today’s review: Lexicon by Max Barry.

Set in present time, Lexicon is the story of an Academy outside Arlington, Virginia, where students are taught the power of words to persuade, manipulate, and control.  They learn that everyone fits into a specified psychological “segment,” information that, when properly used, can make that person your slave.  When Emily Ruff, a teenage runaway in San Francisco, is selected to attend, it’s a dream come true for her, but the journey she finds herself on takes her to a place of power and control of Biblical [sic] levels.

I’m not the best at “critiquing” fiction, but I know good works when I see them, and Lexicon is definitely one of them. I’d love to describe the storyline as linear with intercut flashbacks, but since the flashbacks take up large portions of the book, it’s probably best to say that it has multiple story arcs, following different characters around for different periods of time, eventually ending in the present.  There’s also interjections of blog and message board posts, memos and news articles relating to the events that take place, adding a sort-of objective, exterior view of everything going on, as if you were a passerby in the entire matter.

The characters were great, though some take longer to develop than others.   I loved Emily Ruff from the beginning, this spunky, impulsive girl with great potential who grapples with her emotions a little too much. The sections with her at the Academy were amazing, like an edgier, more cerebral Harry Potter, and it was such a thrill trying to figure out exactly which side she was on.  Wil Parke, the “outlier,” took me some time to get used to, striking me as a little bit too whiny at first (given the starting events of the book, I can understand this now), but he came around and turned out to be a pretty great guy. One of the great things about how Barry writes Wil is how confusing the events are at the beginning.  I found it disorienting, but so did Wil, so good on ya, Barry, for making me feel like the character did!

One final thing I loved about this book was the plausibility of it all.  Of course, this is key to good science fiction(I guess you could call it that), but this is something I haven’t really encountered in other works of this sort.  We’re talking about manipulating the human mind solely using words and knowledge, and while that sounds like a lot of voodoo mumbo-jumbo (in fact, Wil calls it “word voodoo”), I was fully sold on the idea within the first two chapters.   One of the things that postmodernism has brought to light in our world is the power that words and symbols have; they can tell us a lot about an individual with just a few sentences, and they demonstrate a person’s underlying biases and motives.  All that the people at the Academy have discovered is that this truth can be used to manipulate and control people, even on a large scale.  The level of control that words have crosses the boundary of mythical in the last third of the book, but even without that, you almost feel like the events that take place and the organizations that are doing this sort of thing could, in fact, exist in the real world.

There were parts of this book that frustrated the hell out of me, because the action would just be getting good…and it would cut back to one of the other story arcs that’s set in an office building, but that’s the point of the thriller: cliffhangers, cuts to seemingly boring aspects of the story, only to have the action shoot back up a chapter or two later.  It’s precisely that frustration that made me NOT want to put this book down, and I can honestly say I lost a few hours of sleep because I wanted to keep reading.  If you are a fan of words, persuasion, and neurological manipulation that borders on magic, then you need to pick this one up.

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