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Words are powerful. They can be used for good or evil, to persuade someone to do you a favor,  to break the law, or even to have someone killed. According to the storyline of Max Barry’s fifth novel, LEXICON, the most powerful words are “basewords,” those that have the power to destroy people. New basewords are rarely discovered, but every time a new one is found, it changes the language --- or the lexicon --- of a culture, having a “Tower of Babel” effect on the immediate population.

In this new world, the military has established an academy in Broken Hill, Australia, where they train and teach people the power of words. All the individuals in the world can be catalogued into 20-odd different segments, with each segment controlled by a string of very precise, strange-sounding words. There are some who can’t be controlled, but they are few and far between.

"If you’re looking for a futuristic novel with an edge, a lot of drama, and a fast-paced narrative, LEXICON should suit you just fine."

To be admitted to the academy, one must pass a test consisting of five simple --- and seemingly innocent --- questions. If the correct answers are given, then you are sent to the academy for further testing. Two tests are given: one to test your resistance to persuasion, the other to test your ability to persuade. Depending on how you perform on either test determines whether you are sent away or are kept for training. Graduates are given specific jobs to perform according to their abilities. They are also referred to as “Poets,” and upon graduation, each is given the name of a poet. From then on, they are called by their new “poet” name.

One former recruit, Emily, who actually failed at the academy for lack of discipline, was dismissed and sent away but later reinstated. Although she didn’t complete all of her education and training, and didn’t officially “graduate,” she is given a poet’s name, Virginia Wolff, and sent to the Neurolinguistics Department to analyze test results. There she makes a discovery that changes everything.

The story centers on four main characters: Emily; Yeats, who not only is the head of the academy but also has a hidden agenda; (T.S.) Eliot, who initially recruited Emily, later regretted it, and now needs to stop her; and Wil Parke, who once lived in Broken Hill but has lost his memory of his time there.

Max Barry writes with a style that is both compelling and a bit confusing. I had to read a couple of chapters before I was able to figure out what was actually happening, but once I got into it, I had to keep reading to find out what was going down next. Barry switches time frames from past to present, which is a good way to introduce the back story, but with no time reference given at the beginning of a chapter, it was sometimes difficult to figure out if the action was current or in the past. He also has a penchant for swear words, particularly the “F-bomb,” which I thought were used excessively.

Nevertheless, the story is timely as one underlying theme is that of military and government trying to cover up things they don’t want exposed to the general public by issuing false and misleading statements. Also, these institutions use all sorts of means to glean personal information about individual citizens that can be used to further their agendas. If you’re looking for a futuristic novel with an edge, a lot of drama, and a fast-paced narrative, LEXICON should suit you just fine.

Reviewed by Christine M. Irvin on June 28, 2013

by Max Barry

  • Publication Date: April 1, 2014
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0143125427
  • ISBN-13: 9780143125426