Lexicon by Max Barry (Penguin, June 2013)-There’s something intriguing yet downright terrifying about a group of people that can employ mind control just with the use of a few nonsense words, but that’s the basis of the superb Lexicon.
When the book opens, Wil Parke is being held down by two men and having a needle driven through his eye at an airport bathroom. He has no idea why, only that he needs to get away. The snippets of their conversation that he can grasp make no sense, and when he finally gets a chance to run, what he witnesses is mind numbing. Soon, he realizes that his life has taken on a whole new meaning, and his captor may actually be his protector.
We then jump back in time a bit to the life of 16 year old Emily Ruff, a runaway who is barely scraping by as a card hustler in San Francisco. She has a knack for persuasion, however, and this is what puts her on the radar of the “poets”, which is what this clandestine group of mind bending folks call themselves. They present an offer she really can’t refuse, since she doesn’t really have other attractive life choices at her fingertips, and so begins her journey. The author takes us through her schooling with the poets and she begins to show a talent that both intrigues and terrifies the establishment, especially the shadowy man that heads it up. He sees a tool in Emily, and possibly even a weapon.
Emily and Wil’s futures eventually entwine in the tiny town of Broken Hill, Australia, which has been completely devastated by a horrific incident that Emily may be involved in. Perhaps most importantly, Will is an “outlier”, who is immune to the powers of the poets, and it may be what saves his life, but what about Emily, and why has he been drawn into a battle that he wants nothing to do with?
I had absolutely no expectations when I began reading Lexicon, but let me tell you, it took about 10 seconds for me to be completely hooked on this unusual and absorbing story. Emily is a strong willed, yet very vulnerable girl whose future falls into the hands of a group that doesn’t have her best interests at heart. She’s very powerful and it’s her struggle with her terrifying power and also with herself that makes her so tragic, and ultimately, so easy to identify with. Honestly, where Emily was concerned, I couldn’t help but make comparisons to Firestarter, which is a good thing. Wil is a bit of a mystery to begin with, but as the narrative unfolds, you’ll figure things out, and if you weren’t already hopelessly hooked, just wait. You’ll need to pay attention, because when the author changes timelines, he expects you to use your context clues to figure out where you are in the course of the story, and if you are indeed paying attention, it’s not hard. I kind of liked this, because it really made me focus on the who and where and kept me in the moment. The scenes in the ruined Broken Hill are very, very creepy, and Emily’s time at the poet’s school will certainly bring to mind X-Men. Those are just comparison’s to give you a bit of an idea of what you’re getting into, though. Max Barry has certainly created something all his very own, and he’ll have his hooks in you in no time. Lexicon is a scary, intelligent, and poignant thriller that defies categorization and more than deserves a look from readers looking for something a bit different, a little beyond the norm, satirically sharp, and just damn good.