Review: Lexicon by Max Barry


Woah. Lexicon is so much darker and grittier than I thought it would be. It has the feel of a zombie book without zombies but with the same horror and fear, and it just blew my mind with how obscure and unexpected it is. There’s violence, almost-blow jobs, and something short of an atomic bomb. And there’s romance when you least expect it.

Title: Lexicon
Author: Max Barry
Publication Date: June 18, 2013
Category: (Adult Fiction) Science Fiction / Thriller


Wil Parke is in the middle of being kidnapped at an airport, and he has no clue why. His kidnapper claims that someone made Wil forget all of his past, and to try to probe his memories, they set off to Broken Hill, Australia, where a supposed chemical spill wiped out the entire town.

In another time and place, sixteen-year-old Emily Ruff is a three-card Monte hustler on the streets of San Francisco, trying to get by on her skills of manipulation alone. Her persuasion skills catch the attention of recruiters for the Academy, a school in D.C. that specializes in teaching its students how to use language to persuade and manipulate the mind. Emily is soon hard at work learning philosophy, psychology, and sociology, and well on the path of becoming a “poet” for this clandestine society. But as Emily starts growing into her immense powers by sneaking more advanced books out and learning things she’s not supposed to learn, one careless mistake causes her to be temporarily removed from the Academy and sent to Broken Hill, Australia for four years.

The two narrators are connected to the Academy in different ways, and yet both play key roles in a war between rivaling poets. Amidst ongoing bloodshed, Wil and Emily need to use all of their words and wits to stay alive.


The characters in Lexicon are wonderfully multifaceted – I might not love them because they’re not the nicest of fictional characters, but each play an essential part in forming the plot of the story, and each one is just a little more demented and quirky than the next, with Emily being the weirdest of them all.

Emily is a street rat who has an impressive sense of self-preservation. She is wholly a representation of her past, no matter how much education she gets or how many different environments she’s exposed to. She cusses like mad when she feels cornered; she cheats her way through the entrance exams; and she sneaks into other students’ rooms and steals things without a second thought. And yet it’s alright, because it makes her have an advantage in this school of persuasion.

On the pier, under her floppy hat, she used words to make people smile and come closer and give her two dollars and not care about losing. Good words were the difference between Emily eating well and not. And what she had found worked best were not facts or arguments but words that tickled people’s brains for some reason, that just amused them. Puns, and exaggerations, and things that were true and not at the same time.

Emily also does insanely stupid things sometimes due to her selfishness – like coming onto other girls’ boyfriends just to prove that she could manipulate them – and sometimes due to her curiosity, and she really screws things up multiple times in the story. But she also seems so fragile when all her defenses are down, when she’s helpless to feelings of love and insecurity, that I can accept her faults time after time.

Wil, unlike Emily, is more of an enigma at the beginning because he’s lost his memories and has been thrown into a really weird and frightening situation. However, similar to Emily, Wil causes destruction and chaos (whether accidentally or on purpose) wherever he goes. For me, Wil and Emily’s converging narratives remains one of the best things about Lexicon because everything comes together coherently, and when you understand the reason behind everything, it’s such a great moment.

Along with the alternating narratives, a concept that I like about Barry’s work is that he includes snippets from newspapers, social media, or forums interspersed between the chapters to provide an outsider’s perspective of what’s going on in the Academy. It’s interesting to compare the white lies the public is told to the real consequences of poets on the loose. The Academy itself is also a unique and intriguing idea. Emily and the other students learn a variety of subjects not taught in normal schools, and one of the techniques they learn is segmentation where they classify a person’s personality into one of 228 psychographic categories; once they find out which category someone is in, they can use the designated words for that category to control that subject and get him or her to do anything they want. And a questionnaire that comes up again and again – with questions like Are you a dog person or a cat person? What’s your favorite color? Why did you do it? – also helps poets determine what segment a person falls into. Super cool concept, with lots of potential problems that can be caused by rule-breakers like Emily.

Needless to say, the plot surrounding this society of poets is one that has significant consequences on the world. Imagine the power of words and persuasion at the hands of evil people! In the world that Barry created, there is deception within deception, and the amount of bloodshed due to mere words is horrifying. I call this a zombie book without the zombies because it has a similar apocalyptic and catastrophic feel that I experience when reading about zombies or killing robots, and totally DID NOT expect from a book about normal humans and “magical” words.


I don’t want to give too much of the plot (or the ending!) away because it’s brilliant when you go into it not knowing. Lexicon terrifies me at times, surprises me at others, and leaves me completely baffled yet satisfied by the end. (Is that even possible?) Barry combines language with lots of drama, conflict, and love to create a truly engrossing story.

7 thoughts on “Review: Lexicon by Max Barry

  1. Wow, this sounds a lot darker than I’d imagined it to be too! I’ve really been enjoying books about books and language lately (The Word Exchange, Mr. Penumbra’s) so I’d definitely like to pick this up 🙂

    • Yes, let me know if you get a chance to read it! I remember your review of The Word Exchange, and I’ve heard of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore but didn’t know the latter was about… I need to check them out too, haha.

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