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Whip-smart runaway Emily Ruff is making a living from three-card Monte on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organization's recruiters. Drawn in to their strage world, which is populated by people named Bronte and Eliot, she learns their key rule: That every person can be classified by personality type, his mind segmented and ultimately unlocked by the skilful application of words. For this reason, she must never allow another person to truly know her, lest she herself be coerced. Adapting quickly, 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 Parke is brutally ambushed by two men in an airport bathroom. They claim he is the key to a secret war he knows nothing about, that he is an "outlier," immune to segmentation. Attempting to stay one step ahead of the organization and its mind-bending poets, Wil and his captors seek salvation in the toxically decimated town of Broken Hill, Australia, which, if ancient stories are true, sits above an ancient glyph of frightening power.
A brilliant thriller that traverses very modern questions of privacy, identity, and the rising obsession of data-collection, connecting them to centuries-old ideas about the power of language and coercion, "Lexicon" is Max Barry's most ambitious and spellbinding novel yet.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-04-08
- Reviewer: Staff
The fate of humanity is at stake in this ambitious satirical thriller from Australian author Barry (Machine Man). Picked off the streets of San Francisco after displaying a “natural aptitude” for persuasion, 16-year-old magician/hustler Emily Ruff joins a group of prodigies at “the Academy,” where “poets” learn the magic of controlling others’ minds with words. Meanwhile, hapless Wil Parke, the key player in an internal war between highly trained poets called Eliot and Woolf, is the only person known to survive the infamous “bareword” Woolf set loose in Broken Hill, Australia, two years before—an event that killed thousands and wiped Wil’s memory clean. Eliot believes Wil to be the only one capable of stopping this word that “can persist... like an echo,” and is determined to use Wil in his quest to elucidate the word’s elemental code. Emily’s story and Wil’s story converge in a violent denouement that amuses as much as it shocks. (June)
A speak-and-spell fantasy
It’s easy to underestimate the challenges of crafting contemporary fantasy, especially when one compares the task with that of writing its older cousin, the traditional swords-and-sorcery fantasy. But just because the author of a contemporary fantasy can skip some expository steps in character development and setting if the protagonist is an ex-Navy SEAL named Josh living in Boston instead of, say, a 12th-degree death-o-mancer named Magyar Trothan who lives in the land of Whimsicalia, that doesn’t mean taking the less fantastical road is easy. After all, anything that happens in the mostly real, present-day world is subject to the immediate scrutiny of countless experts—plenty of readers will be familiar with Boston or have a family member in the military, whereas no one other than the author will possess any firsthand knowledge on death-o-mancer training. (Granted, the Whimsicalian Wiki will be up a few days after the book is published.)
Nonetheless, most crafters of fantasy, traditional or contemporary, have one big hurdle in common: devising a system of “magic” that’s fresh, compelling and coherent.
With his latest book, Australian author Max Barry (Jennifer Government, Company) easily clears this often fatal hurdle with a premise (and system) guaranteed to appeal to readers: Words have power, and some words have a lot of power. In Lexicon, a global organization whose members refer to themselves as “the poets” employs psycho-linguistic tactics to control, well, pretty much anything or anyone. But like any other multinational concern, even super-secret groups have staffing needs. In the orphaned Emily Ruff, they find someone who may or may not be a powerful addition to their organization. Barry alternates the chapters covering her recruitment and training with tense action sequences involving a man named Wil and his mysterious captors (or protectors?). These are maddeningly opaque at first, though the blistering pace—more reminiscent of a Ludlum spy thriller than anything else—makes the difficulty in gaining one’s bearings tolerable.
By book’s end, Lexicon has revealed itself as a contemporary fantasy that’s three parts thriller and one part romance (somewhat diluted). In the process, Barry’s tale provides its reader with an intriguing, satisfying ride through a world where the phrase “has a way with words” refers to the author’s own world-building as much as to the characters who inhabit it.