Lexicon – Max Barry


At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren’t taught history, geography, or mathematics—they are taught to persuade. Students learn to use language to manipulate minds, wielding words as weapons. The very best graduate as “poets,” and enter a nameless organization of unknown purpose.

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 strange world, which is populated by people named Brontë and Eliot, she learns their key rule: That every person can be classified by personality type, his mind segmented and ultimately unlocked by the skillful 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.


Let me start off by saying that I found this book in the regular suspense/thriller area of my local bookstore, but it read like a YA book.

It started off with two stories that seemed completely separate. And it was kind of confusing. The Wil stuff seemed strange and out of place, so I got pretty aggravated with his story until Emily left school. At that point, the unrelated tales came together in a very nice way. I saw through aliases pretty early on, but I think that was intentional. Part of the story was about how easily you could disguise yourself or reinvent yourself through merely a few words.

However, considering the significance of language in the story, particularly the precision of language, I was not fond of how vague many aspects of the story were. I understood the way the “spells” were placed, so to speak, but it was still pretty far-fetched that a whole profiling system was devised based on specific responses to a questionnaire. What if someone was a dog person one day and a cat person another? What would that say about them? I also wish I knew what the organization did, or what became of it in the end. I wish Eliot had a different fate, to be honest. I felt that his side-story with Bronte was left hanging. In fact, I felt that a lot of unnecessary deaths occurred. Was that to show the carelessness of human nature, or was it meant to fill up an otherwise empty plot?

This book got pretty gruesome, and no one got off easy. The ending made me happy though — after a whole novel that underscores the importance of words, I’m glad it noted that words aren’t everything.

Related Reading

  • I haven’t read Nobody – Jennifer Lynn Barnes, but it seems to have a similarly interesting grasp on perception (same with her upcoming book, The Naturals, which will not be out until November)
  • Books about the power of words
  • Books about corrupt governments

Rating: 4/5

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