Book Review: Lexicon by Max Barry


Rating: 3 / 5

Emily Ruff is homeless teenager, relying on petty scams such as Three-Card Monte for a few quick bucks here and there.  She is recruited into a super secret school that teaches the power of words.  Graduates are called poets, and have mastered the ability to manipulate others.  The other half of Lexicon is centered on Wil Parke, who has apparently been kidnapped for information he does not know he possesses.  An unknown group has been tasked to find Wil because he is immunity to persuasion by the poets. While the two story lines seem separate and independent, Emily and Wil’s lives are intertwined, and through flashbacks, the reader comes to understand the relationship between the two and their fates.

I really wanted to fall in love with Lexicon. I’ve read nothing but rave reviews, and as an avid reader, I love words and its power to convey emotion and meaning.  The premise of Lexicon is original and fascinating; there are people who are specially trained to use words as a means of persuasion against others.  More than that, though, there are such words known as barewords, whose utterance is so powerful that it can immediately make people drop their defenses.  The problem I had with Lexicon is with the execution.  I couldn’t figure out where Barry was going with Wil and Emily’s story lines.  Lexicon starts off with a bang; Wil is trapped in an airport bathroom with a needle stuck in his eye.  He is kidnapped, but does not know why or by whom, and cannot tell who is the proverbial good guy versus bad guy.  And while there was plenty of action, I felt that the subplots were not cohesive.  It took more than half of the book for me to figure out what was going on, and I think that the constant confusion detracted from the enjoyment of the novel.

It is also not readily apparent that the subplots of Emily and Wil are not running parallel to each other.  It took me a while to realize that Emily’s story line occurs much earlier, and by not using time stamps or another  indication of the time shift, it was difficult to grasp the plot.  Understanding the timing of events was the sole responsibility of the reader, and was often burdensome, especially as the story unfolded towards present day Emily.

One aspect of Lexicon I did enjoy was Emily’s character development.  At the beginning of the novel, she is crass, street-tough, and immature.  As the novel progresses, and Emily becomes more aware of her power, her maturity grows.  Her transformation is incredible; at the beginning she was unbearable, and so her self-awareness and inner growth were both fascinating and a welcome relief.

Overall, I thought the premise of Lexicon was interesting and novel, but the world Barry constructed left me with more questions than answers.  Even after finishing the book, I don’t understand why some events occurred, and why some characters act in certain ways.

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