Just how important are words? Max Berry attempts to explore the meaning behind words and languages in the most interesting way possible in his sci-fi thriller, Lexicon.
Set in the near future, the story follows Emily, a young runaway street magician. It’s her knack for persuasion that gets her noticed by a strange man in a suit from an unnamed agency who tells her about a secretive, yet prestigious school that teaches students how to master persuasion. Upon arrival, she quickly realizes that it isn’t a normal school, especially since the staff members hold the names of famous poets like Atwood and Bronte.
There she learns about “poets,” who can unlock minds and control them with a series of complex words, giving the story a magical touch.
The chapters go back in forth between Emily’s storyline and Wil Parke, a man captured by a poet named Eliot who tells Wil that he is the only person who is not affected by poets’ words. And that there are people out to kill both of them. And that they have to go the mysterious and vacant Broken Hill, Australia. According to Eliot, something terrible happened, wiping out the entire population of 3,000 inhabitants.
It’s a lot on poor Wil, who is a very curious and confused character. Eliot, on the other hand, is a rough-and-tough man who barks orders and disregards Wil’s many questions.
While on the run, Eliot informs Wil of a renegade poet named Woolf who has learned the “bareword,” the one word that can immediately control anyone upon sight. And that she wants Wil dead for some reason.
The plot quickly picks up as Wil and Eliot are being chased by poets with numerous occasions of car chases, shoot outs and fearless escapes as they make there way to the vague Broken Hill where, apparently, the bareword still rests.
Through flashbacks, you learn Emily finds herself in Broken Hill after a mishap at the school. You plunge in a love story between Emily and a Broken Hill native that rounds out the story to give the reader exactly everything in a fantastic story: action, mysterious, politics and love.
As chapters jump between the stories, you learn more and more about the secret agency behind the school, the overbearing need for data collections and waning privacy, making the story very political and prophetic. It’s intellectually stimulating, but at the same time, it’s entertaining, and sometimes, hilarious.
Barry doesn’t disregard character development. Each character goes through a significant change, evolving them into fully realized characters that are aware of their own flaws and upsets. You can sympathize with Emily’s love story, Wil’s confusion and Eliot’s hidden past.
Eventually, the Emily and Wil’s stories intertwine brilliantly as secrets are revealed and mysterious are laid to rest. The way Barry does it is seamless and genius, meshing the two in an intense and heart racing climax. Barry sets up the story like a difficult puzzle, and it’s not until very late into the story that everything starts to come together and click. But everything in between races on beautifully, leaving readers questioning the power of love and most importantly, language.