Edition 14: Book Review: Lexicon by Max Barry
Reviewed by Mysti Parker
For this issue of SQ Mag, I was assigned the task of finding an Australian author’s speculative fiction book to review. After a bit of searching, I stumbled upon Lexicon by Max Barry.
The premise looked intriguing. A young girl (Emily) is inducted into a secret school that will teach her some new and deadly skills for later use in a big organization. The idea reminded me of Gail Carriger’s Etiquette & Espionage series (the first book of which I loved). I was especially excited to learn that Emily’s weapons weren’t knives or guns or poisons. She would be learning to wield the power of words, specific language that could break psychological barriers and ‘compromise’ the target, thereby making that person do anything she commands. You know the sticks and stones adage—in this case, the words could indeed hurt you.
For a writer and reader like myself who wields words in a much less invasive manner, I loved the idea. Unfortunately, I found the execution to be lacking.
The story opens with a character named Wil, who is kidnapped in quite a dramatic and violent manner. A number of people are involved in this, but eventually he ends up with ‘Eliot’, one of the Poets from this secret society. They continue their frantic escape from another poet known as ‘Virginia Woolf’ (all the Poets are given real-life poet names as a secret identity) up until the end of the book.
After Wil, we are next introduced to the main character Emily, a street-wise teenage homeless girl who is discovered and inducted into the secret Poet school. Her character had a lot of potential. She’s a swindler and a survivor, clever enough to escape from unpleasant situations. We are all hard-wired to root for the little orphan girl archetype, I think. But, as the story went on, she became more unlikable to me, and it’s because she didn’t grow or change much as a person. Yes, she kept adapting and surviving, but her thinking process and maturity level flat-lined early on.
Other story components proved confusing, like the time-shifting scenes. We are brought from present to past and back again, but at some point, it’s unclear whether the past is near or far past and whether it’s merged somewhere with the present. It finally becomes clearly merged at the end, but by then, it’s hard to piece together what’s happened.
We are also never really shown the purpose of this Poet society. They can ‘compromise’ minds, but to what end? The only motivating factor seemed to involve the society’s leader, ‘Yeats’, and his quest to obtain a powerful weapon called a ‘bareword’. He proved to be a creepy villain with a penchant for nice shoes, but we need more than that. If we are introduced to a Poet school, we need to know what it is the students are meant to do once they graduate. We never even go in-depth into how the students learn these skills, how or why this all started, or the origin of this bareword.
Now, there IS an interesting storyline that connects Wil, Eliot, Emily, and the bareword that happens quite appropriately in the author’s native Australia. That kept me reading so I could see how it played out, and it did play out fairly well, if not in a somewhat predictable manner. The ending itself should have been much more vivid and dramatic, yet was anticlimactic and handled in a rather careless, generic way.
Opportunities for character growth and plot development were missed along the entire storyline. Between chapters, there are these emails, government reports, and articles that relate to the happenings to perhaps lend a ‘real-life’ feel to things. Instead, I found them completely extraneous. These could have been omitted to allow for more characterization and story growth.
Too much time was spent on car chases, explosions, flying bullets, and other violent scenes, which might have been perfect for an action film, but not so much for a book based on the premise of words used as weapons. And, I hate to mention it, but the f-bomb was dropped multiple times on nearly every single page of this 400+ page book. Profanity doesn’t often bother me, except in cases such as this when it seems added in purely for pop-culture’s sake. Every character, save for the villain, says it repeatedly. For Poets who have learned the guts of language enough to compromise minds, they could at the very least have a better variety of curses.
It isn’t often that I write a critical review, so don’t take my opinion as gospel. Lexicon may just not be my cup of tea. Those who enjoy action thrillers with a minimum of emotional depth will probably enjoy this book more than I did. I still find the premise intriguing, and packed with lots of good story nuggets and strong writing. I hope you’ll take a look at Lexicon for yourself and come to your own conclusion.
Lexicon: A Novel, by Max Barry
Science Fiction Thriller
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2014
Mysti Parker is a full time wife, mother of three, and a writer. Her first novel, A Ranger’s Tale was published in January, 2011 by Melange Books, and the second in the fantasy romance series, Serenya’s Song, was published in April 2012. She is also the proud writer of Unwritten, a blog recently voted #3 for eCollegeFinder’s Top Writing Blogs award.