Author: Barry, Max
Pub.: Penguin, 2013
THE BOOK: Car chases, kidnappings, blowing stuff up — all these elements are most often found in your bog standard thriller and yet they all can be found in the first 50 pages of Max Barry’s latest SF book Lexicon. There are two storylines in Lexicon which playfully obscure and reveal truths about each other as they race to a action-packed convergence in the end of the book. The novel kicks off focusing on Wil, a hapless carpenter who, in the early pages of the book is attacked in an airport bathroom, sees his girlfriend is killed in front of him, and is kidnapped by a man who believes he knows the secret to stopping a mysterious destructive force. His abductor is a man called Eliot, and it appears he is a powerful Poet, capable of using special words to compel others. As he drags Wil towards his destiny, we alternate with another story. Emily is a con artist living on the streets of San Francisco when she is recruited by the Poets, who train those they believe have the talent to use power words. We follow her through her schooling, where she displays immense talent, but no aptitude for following the rules. These two characters are connected, but Barry takes his time showing you how. To reveal more of the plot would spoil the fun.
MY TAKE: I really enjoyed the whole idea of the book – the fact that words have power and if you knew how to put them together properly they could give you real power over people was just an awesome premise. There is some fun discussion about how this kind of power might work (not too detailed, but no hands-waving-don’t-look-too-close obfuscation either. I loved the “questionnaire” that the poets could use to figure out a person’s psychographic section, thereby knowing what words could control them. Barry is known for his satirical novels taking elements of modern life (advertising in Jennifer Government, corporate politics in Company) and exaggerating them into absurd if chilling mirrors of our society. He takes a different approach here, and produces what may be his strongest novel yet. The timelines of the novel are not always clear, which can put a reader off-balance trying to piece together the linear narrative, but fear not: Barry has reasons for revealing information at just the right time. The characters are complex and tricksy, a treat for those who like an unreliable narrator. The humor that Barry is known for is still here, but yoked more firmly to the story than has sometimes been the case. If you enjoyed the school bits of Lev Grossman’s The Magician, you will especially like Emily’s experiences at the Poet’s school where we get great glimpses of the training regimen of those who can manipulate people through magic words. This is an incredibly fast read, but would probably be even more fun to read again when you know how it all fits together.
THE GENRES: Thriller/SF
Thriller: The action is non-stop, and the violence quotient is quite high. Starting with such a strong opening of Wil’s kidnapping, Barry keeps the tension levels just right, giving the reader bits of other parts of the story as short breathers before hurtling back to the high stakes action. There is a Hitchcockian quality to the story of a seemingly ordinary man thrust into the middle of plots and dangers he doesn’t understand. But like with the best Hitchcock, just because you think you know what’s happening does not mean that you actually do. The final conflict is huge stakes, with a world-changing Babel event that could wipe out language and re-shape the world. Not to mention kill a lot of people. Great tension and pacing, with the long flashbacks interrupting the action, but in a necessary way so that you understand the action. Well done.
Science Fiction: This is the kind of Science Fiction that works so well for readers that don’t think they like Science Fiction. There are no spaceships, there are no aliens. There isn’t really even any technology to understand. It’s a big “what if” though – what if there was a school that could teach people to unleash the power hidden in language to manipulate and control other people . The power could almost be seen as a more Fantasy-ish psychic power, except that Barry doesn’t treat it as a Fantasy power. It’s a skill, inborn perhaps but trainable and teachable. There are magic words, but this is no fairy tale.
Rating: 9/10 Almost Perfect
- Jennifer Government by Max Barry
- The Magicians by Lev Grossman
- Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff
- The Rook by Daniel O’Malley