#CBR6 Review #25 – Lexicon
Target: Max Barry’s Lexicon
Profile: Speculative Fiction, Thriller
After Action Report:
As I have written before, I find book recommendations to be more annoying than useful (which raises some interesting questions about why I write book reviews). There are so many variables involved in what makes any given book appealing to a given person that, without a history of literary compatibility, it is almost impossible guarantee that any two people will like the same book. Still, every so often I’ll follow up on a recommendation or a particularly good review from a source that I like and it won’t disappoint me. Lexicon not only did not disappoint, it wildly exceeded my expectations.
Lexicon takes place in a world where “Poets” have been the real power hidden in the shadow of history. These individuals, possessed of extraordinary willpower and a set of linguistic tools, are able to command people by speaking a few key words that bypass our conscious minds and force us to obey. The idea on its own is fascinating, drawing on shades of Neal Stephenson’s secret histories and J.K. Rowling’s ‘school for special people’ concept.
The book is a wonderfully brisk read, snapping back and forth between Wil, a man with false memories caught in a power play between Poets, and Emily, a street kid who shows at least some potential to be a Poet and is inducted into a school to learn how to control people with words. Wil’s story reads like a Robert Ludlum novel, all chase scenes, helicopters and explosions. Emily’s is more intellectually thrilling, with dense interpersonal conflicts and student intrigue, but, surprisingly, no less page turning. The majority of the book is wrapped up in these two stories, and if it had stuck to that formula, I really wouldn’t have any complaints.
Where things start to break down is a twist that basically removes Emily as a protagonist. The shape of the story changes, relying more heavily on Wil to keep the pace up and his arc isn’t quite up to the task. The conclusion is by no means boring or dull, it just doesn’t hold together as well as the rest of the piece. There are also some specific plot quibbles that I could pick at, but they are all tied up in the larger issues of this last section.
While some might complain that the novel is too short, or that there isn’t enough time to really get into the material, I tend to disagree. While there might be value in another story set in the world of Lexicon, Barry’s expertly paced story does rely on the brevity of the book. When I finished the book, I wanted more, but I also recognized that this particular story had been told and there wasn’t any more I needed from the characters or the plot.
Now I have spent more time picking the book apart than I have praising it, but it really is quite good speculative fiction. The tone, pacing and concept are all spot on, which is more than I can say for most of the books I give rave reviews to. There’s something very compelling about Barry’s Poets and the world they inhabit, although it was unclear to me what their long term goals were. Other than living like kings, of course. There is a mountain of untapped potential and ideas in the concept, so I imagine either a sequel or a somewhat respectful rip-off is somewhere in the works.
Lexicon is a wonderful little read that really shouldn’t be relegated to the SF/Fantasy section of the book store. It has broad appeal a clever concept that bibliophiles will appreciate all the more for its close links to reading and the understanding of words and language. Regardless of little faults, Lexicon has everything you might want from good speculative fiction, and that is quite an achievement.