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At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren't taught history, geography, or mathematics--at least not in the usual ways. Instead, they are taught to persuade. Here the art of coercion has been raised to a science. Students harness the hidden power of language to manipulate the mind and learn to break down individuals by psychographic markers in order to take control of their thoughts. The very best will graduate as "poets", adept wielders of language who belong to a nameless organization that is as influential as it is secretive.

Whip-smart orphan Emily Ruff is making a living running a three-card Monte game on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organization's recruiters. She is flown across the country for the school's strange and rigorous entrance exams, where, once admitted, she will be taught the fundamentals of persuasion by Bronte, Eliot, and Lowell--who have adopted the names of famous poets to conceal their true identities. For in the organization, nothing is more dangerous than revealing who you are: Poets must never expose their feelings lest they be manipulated. Emily becomes the school's most talented prodigy until she makes a catastrophic mistake: She falls in love.

Meanwhile, a seemingly innocent man named Wil Jamieson is brutally ambushed by two strange men in an airport bathroom. Although he has no recollection of anything they claim he's done, it turns out Wil is the key to a secret war between rival factions of poets and is quickly caught in their increasingly deadly crossfire. Pursued relentlessly by people with powers he can barely comprehend and protected by the very man who first attacked him, Wil discovers that everything he thought he knew about his past was fiction. In order to survive, must journey to the toxically decimated town of Broken Hill, Australia, to discover who he is and why an entire town was blown off the map.

As the two narratives converge, the shocking work of the poets is fully revealed, the body count rises, and the world crashes toward a Tower of Babel event which would leave all language meaningless. A brilliant thriller that connects very modern questions of privacy, identity, and the rising obsession of data collection to centuries-old ideas about the power of language and coercion, Lexicon is Max Barry's most ambitious and spellbinding novel yet.

390 pages, Hardcover

First published June 18, 2013

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Max Barry

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,526 reviews
Profile Image for Kemper.
1,390 reviews6,977 followers
August 12, 2016
“Vartix velkor mannik wissick! Vote for this review and then email me your credit card numbers!”

If you followed my instructions, then this is the greatest book ever written. If you didn’t, then it’s a decent thriller with a clever sci-fi hook to it that doesn’t deliver on its full potential.

Lexicon tells two parallel stories. In the first one, Wil is an Australian who is abducted at an airport by a mysterious man called Tom who tells him that he is being pursued by a powerful and dangerous group that has dedicated itself to using language to manipulate people. The best of their members are called ‘poets’ and take on names of famous scribblers like Yeats or Woolf. A poet can seize control of another person by reeling off a series of special code words that hack the brain and enable them to implant commands.

The other story takes place a few years prior to this and tells of how a teenage homeless girl named Emily becomes a student of a special school where the kids are trained in the art of persuasion to become poets. The stubborn and headstrong Emily constantly chafes against the strict rules of the school, and she eventually finds herself in hot water. As Wil and Tom try to stay a step ahead of the poets hounding them, Emily’s story eventually begins to dovetail with theirs and all points converge at an Australian town that was the victim of some kind of industrial catastrophe.

There are some echoes here of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash which also focuses on the idea of language as a kind of virus. When Lexicon is exploring the ideas of persuasion and a secret group manipulating society by using mass media, it’s pretty interesting. When it reverts to the thriller portion of people on the run from a vast conspiracy, then it’s a lot more formulaic and not nearly as much fun.

I had some other issues with the book, but I gotta venture into spoiler country to talk about them.

Also posted at Kemper's Book Blog.
Profile Image for Jim Loter.
151 reviews47 followers
October 22, 2013
Were I 20 years younger I would have read this and then immediately rushed to grab books on Peirce's semiotics, Searle's speech-act theory, and Wittgenstein's philosophy of language to produce a conference paper titled something like "Locution, Linguistics, and Lexicon: Words and Gender Power Dynamics in Max Barry's Fiction." But I'm not a graduate student anymore so I can read books for pleasure now!

And, boy, did I enjoy this book. It's as if Barry is one of the "poets" from the novel and he has learned the exact combination of words and narrative elements to cause all of my critical defenses to fall.

The central premise is that words are not simply signs for communication; they are containers of meaning that have a neurological effect on people's brains. Gifted and specially-trained individuals - "poets" - learn to size people up psychologically and then utter the specific "words" that cause an individual to drop all defenses and become utterly persuadable. Great power can be derived from this ability, and power corrupts....

The story unfolds in a dual-narrative fashion - one thread follows Wil and Tom as they are chased by an unknown organization bent on destroying Wil (free will?) because of his peculiar immunity to the poets' powers. The second follows a 16-year-old runaway girl named Emily who is recruited and sent to a special school to train to become a poet (shades of "Harry Potter" and Lev Grossman's The Magicians). Of course, the two threads intertwine and collide, and this is handled in a very clever and satisfying way.

My only complaints are minor. I would have liked to have learned more about the character of Yeats, especially his belief in god and love of shoes (which may be related in some way I'm unclear on). The dialogue between Wil and Tom ran on a little at times and got somewhat annoying. Finally, I think the ending "cheated" a bit, though nothing too egregious.

Overall, I was quite taken by this book, but that may have something to do with my predilection for the underlying premise and themes of linguistic power. Nevertheless, I highly recommend it - especially for the highly verbal among us.
Profile Image for Joel.
414 reviews22 followers
October 13, 2013
I feel somehow wrong giving a so-so review to a book that I enjoyed and read really quickly, but part of me wishes there was just a little more "oomph" to this book. Barry does a nice job with the structure, giving us pieces that fit together more and more clearly over time (though some of the twists are easy to guess, I was genuinely surprised more than once in the book) and flesh out the world of the Poets in some really nice ways.

But honestly, there should have been more. What's here feels like a less developed version of what Neal Stephenson does in Snow Crash, what with the "the secret history of words is that they control reality" thing. In the case of Lexicon, Barry gives us a universe in which the art of persuasion can be wielded like a weapon--and is, by shadowy government spooks known as Poets. When one of them discovers a word that literally has the power to kill everyone in a small Australian town, it's up to a Last Good Man archetypal figure (here known as Eliot, as all Poets are codenamed for famous writers) to figure out how to stop the word from spreading any further.

It's a neat set-up, and Barry gives us infuriatingly short glimpses of this shadowy rhetorical world in which the Poets operate, but he's so intent on giving us good action scenes (and they are good) that I felt like the richer linguistic world got overlooked. I want to know more about this organization and what they do, but apparently hints and intimations are all Barry wants to give us. That's ok, it's just not as rich as it could have been. And when he gets into the history of "Babel events" and all that kind of stuff, I would have loved a little more complexity. Make me struggle to keep up, don't just tell me, "Yep, words can be really convincing." Because duh.

But still, Lexicon is fun. A bibliophile palate cleanser that would make a good action movie of the Philip K. Dick variety--the kind where you have to just let yourself go with the rules of the world and not think about how silly the premise actually is. In fact, I could see a pretty good role for Michael Fassbender as Eliot.

But I digress.

Good fun, overall. Just don't expect much more.
Profile Image for carol..
1,576 reviews8,232 followers
August 30, 2020
Sadly disappointing and messy for a book about the mind-altering power of words and their impact on personal lives.

Barry does the dual timeline, dual narrative technique, so your enjoyment may vary based on tolerance. The current timeline is from a man, Wil, who is kidnapped as he is leaving the airport to meet his girlfriend, while a past timeline is from a young woman, Emily, who is recruited off the streets for her talking talents to apply for a ‘magic’ school.

As enticing as that may sound, it leads me to a digression about the role of ‘magic’ and schools in fantasy systems. In most fantasy–especially since the popularization of Hogwarts–there are magic schools that are about learning magic, and magic systems. This is not one of them. The beginning is about a young woman qualifying for a private school and adjusting to it. If you pick it up hoping to learn about different spells and how they work, you will be disappointed. Instead, this is more ‘superhero’ type, where people kind of just fledged into full skills and there’s not a lot of scrutiny how this might happen. In one spectacularly inaccurate example of ‘persuasion,’ Barry tries to show us how attention-getting on the street is the same as persuading someone to do something they wouldn’t normally do (baring one’s breasts count, as does subsequently claiming assault)

Emily is the only character that is fleshed out to any degree, and even that is suspect. We don’t learn much about her runaway history, and nothing about life before. Her stories are largely consumed with love interests or manipulation by men, but I feel like I didn’t gain any understanding as to why this was okay with her until . As for the rest of the characters, they are inscrutable--a nice way of saying one-dimensional. Wil argues with his kidnapper, then goes along. Eliot, the kidnapper, is full of drive but the reader has very little clue why, particularly as the dialogue between he and Wil usually consists of Eliot telling Wil they will all die if they don’t do something Right Now. The dialogue is terrible, like they are reading from fortune cookies:

“‘Yes, I kill people, when the alternative is worse. That’s the world. That’s the reason you and I are still here.’
Wil looked away. ‘I’ll come with you. I’ll do what you say. But not because you are right.’
Eliot but the car in gear. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘Close enough.'”

To help us towards understanding the meta, Barry provides the reader with newspaper clippings, transcripts and, in one intrusive wall-breaking case, a (fictional) blog post:

“I just think it’s missing the point to get upset about bias in Fox News or MSNBC or whoever… relying on a single source of information means you can’t critically evaluate it. It’s like you’re locked in a room an every day I come in and tell you what’s happening outside. It’s very easy for me to make you believe whatever I want. Even if I don’t lie, I can just tell you the facts that support me and leave out the ones that don’t.”

The ending… oh, that ending. Just how Blake Crouch was that? Now I have more questions, like why a certain someone’s character was completely different Actually, while it was emotionally satisfying, it felt even more sloppy in terms of the novel.

While it’s an interesting collection of concepts, it would have done much better with Peter Watts, who can speak science while wrapping concepts surrounding psycholinguistics and neurobiology up in a sci-fi plot. As it is, it’s more thriller with people that have abilities, then a commentary on linguistics and thought. I mean, I guess it is a commentary on linguistics and thought, but only to the point that Barry tells us it is, about every five pages. It might appeal to those who enjoy Blake Crouch and his thriller approach to sci-fi.

Sadly, I guess these words didn’t work on me.
January 17, 2020
💥 January 16, 2020: only $1.99 today! 💥

P.S. I read this book three and a half years ago and still haven't written an actual review for it, so go me and stuff! But hey, I said I'd write it by 2068, which gives me 48 more years to think about it, so yay and stuff!


Simple as that.

Max Barry. You either get him, or you don't. So to those poor souls who happen to think his books are total crap *waves enthusiastically at Dan*, I say: I am so sorry. Please try not to feel too bad about this sad state of affairs. It is, after all, not your fault if you were born with Despicable Book Taste (DBT™) .

►► Full Words and Coolness and Violence Oh My Crappy Non Review (WaCaVOMCNR™) to come. Eventually. Say in 2068 or something. This one is going to be a pain to write. Because this book is just too bloody brilliant and stuff.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,109 followers
April 6, 2020
I'm coming to this party VERY late. So many people have either loved this or hated it because of the hype, but honestly?

I enjoyed the effortless storytelling, the core ideas, the wonderful characters, and the deep emotion it evoked in me.

I mean, you either believe in the power of words or you don't. That's basically what separates those who love this book from those who don't... And I'm a dog person. My favorite color is green. My Facebook profile is useless for data collection because I filled it with nonsense... but that doesn't mean I'm not susceptible to neurolinguistic programming.

And that's what this SF thriller featuring neurolinguistic wizards is all about: persuasion. Sometimes a persuasion that has godlike levels of power. :) Of course, it's all about language. Words have all the power.

I personally would have loved to see an aspect of the tale move to the realm of how language creates consciousness, but Max Barry merely skirts the edge of that idea here. He DOES, however, remain firmly within the confines of a gloriously and deliciously evil story that not only succeeds in delivering a gut-punch of an ending but a huge body count as well.

What? Isn't this a book on words? Oh, hell yeah.

I can't see a reason why this book should not become a classic SF. It deserves to be read and re-read. Maybe if I read it enough times I can condition myself out of certain mindsets... or condition myself into another. :) I daresay the tower of Babel was never destroyed.

Profile Image for Barbara.
1,395 reviews4,906 followers
June 21, 2023

Emily Ruff, a 16-year-old con artist, is happily working her card tricks on the streets of San Francisco when she meets 'T.S. Elliot.'

The 'poet' soon carts her off to a special school in Virginia where she'll learn to use words to "persuade" (i.e. control) people. All graduates of the school take the names of well-known poets before they're let loose to fulfill the school's agenda - which seems to be to control the world.

Unfortunately for Emily she breaks some rules before graduation and is banished to Broken Hill, Australia.

There Emily falls in love - a big no no for poets - and comes across one of the most dangerous words in the world, a 'bareword.' Using the bareword Emily causes the death of every single person in Broken Hill except for herself and one other survivor, a blue collar worker named Wil Parke.

Wil soon becomes the target of an evil cadre of poets who are determined to dig through his brain to discover how he lived through the carnage.

Emily is a wily, clever girl who can lie/steal/cheat her way out of almost any situation and her journey through the book is fascinating. Unfortunately Emily is hard to root for since no sane person would really like to become acquainted with this conscienceless con artist in real life.

In fact this is a problem with almost all the characters in the story, who seem too self-interested and ruthless to be likable people. Wil is an exception as he appears to be a helpless victim of circumstance caught in a situation he doesn't comprehend.

The book kept my interest and I was intrigued with the explanations/demonstrations of how people are controlled with words. All in all a pretty good book. I'd recommend it, especially to science fiction fans.

You can follow my reviews at http://reviewsbybarbsaffer.blogspot.com/
Profile Image for Rebecca Roanhorse.
Author 54 books8,078 followers
March 30, 2022
A reader recommended this one to me when I mentioned I loved the language as magic trope, and this one delivers on that trope in a fun, thrilling, way. (OK, the magic is supposed to be scientific in this book, but blah blah Clarke's law.) I stayed up late reading this one, finished in a day, and loved it. Dual timelines that merge in a satisfying way, dangerous chases, mysterious "poets" aka magicians who use speech to persuade, and terrible consequences. I thought it was a lot of fun, and still timely even though the book is almost a decade old. If you want something guaranteed to break your reading slump with a mysterious villain, a magic school that trains kids to essentially be con artists of the highest order, and lots of fleeing across the country from the bad guys (or are they the good guys?), this is the book for you. Recommend!
Profile Image for Amy Warrick.
524 reviews33 followers
July 17, 2013

So anyone whose mother ever taught them 'sticks and stones may break my bones..." knows that words DO hurt and they influence people and the pen is mightier than the sword and yadda yadda so Mr. Barry is not exactly breaking new ground here...we are READERS, Mr. Barry, who are reading this book, so, you know, give us some credit. Words be some pow'ful shit.

Anyway, the premise of the book is interesting - persuasive young people are taught mysterious words to use on a variety of personality types to then control other peeps' minds. They're called poets and then given poet code names, like Bronte and Eliot and Yeats....no Dr. Suess or Shel Silverstein, though - only serious poets need apply.

You got your rogue poet, your surprise twist poet, your poet love interests, your poet that wants to rule the world, and various shifting poet loyalties, with lots of action (after a completely incoherent beginning that nearly had me quitting before I even had a clue what was going on). The problem is, there never is an explanation for what poets are FOR, there isn't a single fully developed or likable character here, and the interesting premise just devolves into silliness - vartix velkor mannik wissick! Do not move! Really?

This was a good idea gone bad. Maybe a graphic novel format would suit it better. I don't know. contrex helo siq rattrak! Go read something else!
Profile Image for Amanda.
282 reviews313 followers
May 21, 2014
3 1/2 stars.

Are you a cat or a dog person?

In the world of Lexicon, your answer reveals everything they need to know about you. Who are "they"? They are the poets, people who are hardwired to resist persuasion and to use language as a weapon against the rest of us. Studying linguistics, personality and psychology, poets have the ability to subvert free will and compel us do as they wish. The most powerful poets are given pseudonyms that appropriately demonstrate their mastery over language and, thus, over society: T. S. Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, W. B. Yeats, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf.

Lexicon tells the story of Emily Ruff, a homeless teenage grifter who shows promise as a poet, and Wil Parke, a man who unknowingly survived an apocalyptic event in Broken Hill, Australia. As Emily is recruited by the poets and sent to an exclusive school to cultivate her gifts, Wil is on the run from would be assassins for reasons unknown. As their stories intertwine, Barry explores the power of words and the sway they hold over us.

Lexicon is a clever exploration of modern society. In our media saturated culture, we are surrounded by words from a variety of sources, most of whom have a vested interest in persuading us to adopt their viewpoint or engage in action that is beneficial to them. What are politicians, corporations, pundits, and advertising executives if not "poets"? And, more often than not, they succeed in manipulating and coercing the American public. There is so much spin that it's often hard to tell where the truth ends and the fiction begins--even more chilling is that many people don't even care, content to let the bias of others "think" for them.

While I enjoyed the premise of Lexicon and was certainly drawn in by Barry's fast-pace, the sense that it could have been more nagged at me. Its premise is one that could lend itself to a more complex, nuanced examination of the ability of speech to influence, but Barry keeps it at surface level. While Barry's intent seems to have been to write a fun, intelligent thriller, I would have readily signed on for something more substantial. For example, the purpose of the poets and the intricacies of their organization is never revealed, and the specifics of how their influence works is given only a basic "nuts and bolts" explanation.

However, I was still set to give this a 4 star rating just for its inventiveness and the fun I had along the way, until the unsatisfying end. No spoilers here--I'll only say that, for all the originality of the premise, the ending was underwhelming and predictable.

Cross posted at This Insignificant Cinder and at Shelf Inflicted
Profile Image for Rob.
511 reviews120 followers
April 27, 2020
A stand alone Sci-Fi / Thriller published 2013.

This was my first time reading this author and wasn’t sure what to expect. My expectation will be much higher for my next read.
Lexicon was to be an addictive read with its strange mix of sci-fi, thriller and romance.

We, as readers, all know the power that words hold over us but imagine a world where words have the power to control the human thought process, words so powerful that once spoken people, en masse, would be compelled to do the speakers biding.
This is such a tale.

The story unfolds on different continents and at different times but it is so cunningly put together it took this reader some time to realise just what was going on. For all its continent and time jumping the story blends seamlessly.

It’s hard to outline the story without giving too much away but suffice to say, just when you think you have it figured out, think again and again. This story does not lack for jaw droppers.

This is a well written, imaginative story that explores the power of language. This might be a fiction but whilst reading I couldn’t help but think of some of the great speeches that have moved nations and, at times, the World.
Martin Luther King’s “I had a dream” speech.
John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech.
And the ranting of a mad man, Adolf Hitler.
Just to name a few.

I was also pleased to see that, not only is, Max Barry an Australian author but that he hails from my neck of the woods. It seems there’s a lot more to my bit of paradise than cattle, coal, trees and beaches.

A great 4 star read.

Profile Image for Regan.
457 reviews110k followers
June 9, 2023
3.5? 4?

i really really enjoyed the first 2/3 of this book. However, I sorta got lost at the end of the story....
Profile Image for Susan Tunis.
820 reviews195 followers
April 7, 2013
Out of context

Several years ago, I heard author Chuck Palahniuk read a story so disturbing that a woman in the audience fainted. She wasn’t the first. Palahniuk summed it up thus: “The power of words.”

I couldn’t help but think of the above as I delved into Max Barry’s fifth novel, Lexicon. I’ve been a fan of his work since Syrup, so I’m old school. I tend to think of Barry as a satirist first and foremost, so I was surprised when Lexicon opened very much like a thriller. Readers are thrown straight into a frankly bizarre interrogation in an airport bathroom, leading to abduction and multiple homicides. The abductee is an everyman named Wil. He has no idea what’s going on, or why this is happening to him. Eventually one of his kidnappers becomes his protector, but he’s not great about answering questions:

“You don’t need to understand. You need to sit there and not do anything stupid while I take care of you. That’s what you need. Look, I get that it’s been a confusing night. And now you’re all, But how is that possible, and, Why did he do that. But I’m not going to answer those questions, Wil, because you don’t have the framework to comprehend the answers. You’re like a kid asking how I can see him even though he’s closed his eyes. Just accept that this is happening.”

Barry places readers in the same position as Wil. No framework. This book has an unusual plot—which is good. Barry’s never guilty of writing the same old thing. But Lexicon is challenging. It’s strange. The story is told in an extremely non-linear manner that really forces readers to pay close attention to the timeline. I’ll be honest, there were several times I had to double back and check where and when I was in the tale.

Because this is not merely Wil’s story. The other central character is Emily. We meet her as a teen runaway living on the streets of San Francisco. She’s hustling tourists playing three-card Monte, but Emily may have other untapped gifts. Someone sees potential. She’s flown first-class across the country to take entrance exams for an elite school outside of Washington, DC. There, students are taught the art and science of persuasion. This is an institution VERY interested in the power of words. In the hands of their top graduates, the “poets,” they are, in fact, weapons. That’s the basic set-up, but revelations are hard-won in this tale, and I’ll leave the rest of the complex plot for you to uncover.

Max Barry is exploring some very interesting ideas, and taking them to extremes. In his hands, language is almost supernatural. But he clothes his magic in a patina of science, some of it real. (It’s unsurprising that a writer would choose to delve into this subject matter, and he’s not the first. Taking a very different approach, Ben Marcus also explored the power of words and language in his recent novel, The Flame Alphabet.) Barry’s got a talent for world-building. The world that Lexicon is set in is like our own, but with this extra layer that you and I have heretofore been unaware of. Now all is revealed.

This novel doesn’t have the overt humor that I tend to associate with Mr. Barry’s work. It’s funny, but in a dark and subtle way. Max Barry is just an inherently funny guy, so I think there will always be some humor in his work, but this novel is the furthest from his satirical roots. The entire premise is sort of absurdist, but there’s also something provocative going on there. For instance, this passage where one secret operative is describing how they collect data on citizens in order to control them:

“You are… you need to get into this stuff, Eliot. It’s the future. Everyone’s making pages for themselves. Imagine a hundred million people clicking polls and typing in their favorite TV shows and products and political leanings, day after day. It’s the biggest data profile ever. And it’s voluntary. That’s the funny part. People resist a census, but give them a profile page and they’ll spend all day telling you who they are.”

And with this knowledge, there is power. Lexicon is a thriller, but an unconventional one. It moves at a fast pace and contains major action sequences. But I’d also classify it as speculative fiction. Truthfully, it’s awfully hard to pin down, genre-wise. I don’t think Lexicon will be appreciated by every reader. It’s smart and it’s different. If you’re a fan of Max Barry, or if you’re intrigued by the premise, I encourage you to give it a try.

And I don’t mind telling you, I have a new-found appreciation for both Mr. Palahniuk and Mr. Barry. They are very persuasive men. They’re good with words.
Profile Image for Susan.
337 reviews24 followers
November 28, 2016
Holy cow Batman! This was a really terrific story. Just very different. I'm not a huge reader of science fiction or dystopian-type novels, but I love it when I come across a good one. "Lexicon" is definitely a good one.

I actually had to read my way almost 20%-25% into the book before I was totally hooked. I found the beginning a bit confusing, but I sensed it was going to pay off if I just kept reading and it totally did.

Great concepts about language, persuasion, how language can be used as weapon, how whole populations can be controlled with language all encased in this great "race to the finish" story. Five stars. One of the most original stories I've read this year.
Profile Image for Lizz.
234 reviews56 followers
December 11, 2021
I don’t write reviews.

I’m really enjoying Barry. This book has plot flaws for sure, but his character development is strong enough that I can overlook them. This is one of those books that remind you why you love to read. I think that’s the best compliment I can give this writer.

“It was always this way. The more people talked, the more they obscured. You didn’t need to argue for the truth, you could see it. He had almost forgotten that.”
Profile Image for Monica.
621 reviews631 followers
August 13, 2015
Really intriguing premise. The notion that there are words that automatically affect people based on personality types etc. A very interesting and sideways look at language. I really enjoyed the book. A very fast paced and interesting read. This was really more speculative fiction than science fiction with all of the action taking place in the very near future, no magic or fabulous technology or aliens in this tale. More of an alternate world tale where words have power. A secret organization is devoted to the studying of the power of words and persuasion. As in the real world, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Actually the more I think on the book, the more clever it becomes. This is the second book in 2013 that I will probably re-read at some point. It feels like one of those books that each reading will yield more tasty morsels. Great, accessible book (really about 4.5 stars).
Profile Image for 🥀 Rose 🥀.
1,142 reviews38 followers
August 7, 2013
Words hold power. Words can harm. Welcome to the world of word wizards. I have just discovered a new favorite author and plan on reading all things Max Barry.

Many genres blended into one ultimate mind bending, super smart and fun, exciting thriller. I love psychology, and how this explains what real wizards are. Just highly enlightened persons who can read all your weaknesses through just a few questions, body language etc and takes it to a whole new level to learn how certain words will persuade and control an individual based on this knowledge. Of course this is more complex than that. What happens when power gets into the wrong hands?

This is a twisty little treat that I highly encourage thriller fans to pick up. I hope I can persuade you to read this based on my words. :)
Profile Image for Angela.
3,199 reviews371 followers
April 18, 2018
More like 1.5 stars?

As a lover of language - how we use it to not only communicate but change the world around us - this book was immediately interesting to me. Words are important, a sentiment uttered more than once in this book and implied throughout. To put it bluntly, words mean things, and should be chosen with care and respect.

I'm not even quite sure what I was expecting of this book anymore, but it does start out running - and you better be prepared to chase after to keep up. You're thrust right into the action, on a bathroom floor as Wil gets a needle shoved into his eye and questions hammered at him. Then there's shooting and running and all sorts of other things being thrown at you. I will say that the book hardly had a slow moment. There was a 10% section somewhere near the middle that didn't seem to be bursting with fights, but that was it. Otherwise it was non-stop. Unfortunately, this didn't exactly appeal to me. I enjoy some good action, but it's characters that I care about most and here the characters never came alive for me.

Honestly, I find I have trouble even describing them. Instead of the actions of the world shaping them, and their choices, I felt like they were players on a stage with pre-determined events. They moved from one event to the next. It was the events that were important here, not the characters.

The language aspect, which I was really looking forward to, was mostly glossed over, or used as a platform to talk about social media, media bias, and speak about society today in general. I enjoyed these thoughts objectively - I've thought them before; that I make too much of myself available on social media and the internet, enabling companies to compile data about me to better sell to me, or convince me of whatever they want. With targeted advertisements flooding websites, it's not hard to believe some of the things the Poets do or plan. I liked this in the same way I like a good debate though, in person. It's interesting and fascinating - but written down it just becomes a bit dry. And these moments - either clippings from news sources about events in the book, or messages on internet discussion boards, or comments/discussion from readers served only to slow the book down and bog down the action. Interesting, but ultimately it felt redundant, and I felt that time could have been better used elsewhere.

More time spent on explaining what the hell is going on would have been appreciated. The book jumps from character POV to character POV, with barely a word that it's happening. It jumps from timeline to timeline to timeline, we're working with about 4 different and distinct timelines here, and it sometimes took me pages to figure out which timeline I was in. I spent the first 30% of the book with no clue as to any of the basic structure of the world, the motives of any of the characters, or the reason things were happening. When I finally did begin to get an idea, I felt like the book was doling out information like it was a precious commodity. Perhaps that's fitting in a book about the importance of words, but I didn't like feeling like a mark that was being 'compromised' - in case you're wondering, they compromise you and make you do whatever they want.

I think it kind of succeeded though because I did end up finishing the book, despite my wanting to DNF it several times. I almost did the last time at 80% of the way in, when I could barely make myself care how it all turned out. I did though, and I can't really determine if I'm glad or not. After the hell the characters were put through in the book it all tied up a bit too neatly for me.

Perhaps this is a case of this book just not being for me. It's possible that what I was hoping for and what I got were simply on widely separate ends of the spectrum. I can't pretend that I enjoyed this book though. I vacillated between confusion, boredom and irritation too much throughout.
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,981 reviews1,991 followers
March 1, 2022
Rating: 3.9* of five

The Publisher Says: At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren't taught history, geography, or mathematics—at least not in the usual ways. Instead, they are taught to persuade. Here the art of coercion has been raised to a science. Students harness the hidden power of language to manipulate the mind and learn to break down individuals by psychographic markers in order to take control of their thoughts. The very best will graduate as "poets", adept wielders of language who belong to a nameless organization that is as influential as it is secretive.

Whip-smart orphan Emily Ruff is making a living running a three-card Monte game on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organization's recruiters. She is flown across the country for the school's strange and rigorous entrance exams, where, once admitted, she will be taught the fundamentals of persuasion by Bronte, Eliot, and Lowell—who have adopted the names of famous poets to conceal their true identities. For in the organization, nothing is more dangerous than revealing who you are: Poets must never expose their feelings lest they be manipulated. Emily becomes the school's most talented prodigy until she makes a catastrophic mistake: She falls in love.

Meanwhile, a seemingly innocent man named Wil Jamieson is brutally ambushed by two strange men in an airport bathroom. Although he has no recollection of anything they claim he's done, it turns out Wil is the key to a secret war between rival factions of poets and is quickly caught in their increasingly deadly crossfire. Pursued relentlessly by people with powers he can barely comprehend and protected by the very man who first attacked him, Wil discovers that everything he thought he knew about his past was fiction. In order to survive, must journey to the toxically decimated town of Broken Hill, Australia, to discover who he is and why an entire town was blown off the map.

As the two narratives converge, the shocking work of the poets is fully revealed, the body count rises, and the world crashes toward a Tower of Babel event which would leave all language meaningless. A brilliant thriller that connects very modern questions of privacy, identity, and the rising obsession of data collection to centuries-old ideas about the power of language and coercion, Lexicon is Max Barry's most ambitious and spellbinding novel yet.


My Review
: My Goodreads friend, Aussie Angela, recommended this read to me, and thus reminded me that I've let it slip for seven years. I was shocked by that.

So my original notes on the book are, in their entirety, "FUCKING HELL I'M SCOOPED"

Author Barry did as good a job as a straight person could with this multilayered exploration of the nature of human desire. After all, he has no reason to consider the either the subversiveness or the innate subversion of sexual needs. It did make me impatient, since it's so obvious to me that the whole book is wasted on heterosexual sex that most common, uncontroversial, and frankly hugely overexposed topic of vanishingly small challenge or interest. I mean, how hard is it for a woman to pull? Find a horny straight man, you can get sex out of him with fairly little effort.

As to the grisly societal implications of Author Barry's tome, they're pretty old hat since The Hidden Persuaders on the socially acceptable end of the spectrum and Paul Linebarger's extremely chilling Psychological Warfare (it amazes me that this is allowed to be reprinted) at the scary, scary end.

But the phrases he makes are simply marvelous. Putting them into the Goodreads Quotes database from my old commonplace book was an exercise in fun nostalgic "oh, if only".
Profile Image for Darth J .
417 reviews1,265 followers
March 22, 2014
The best way I could describe it would be The Magicians meets The Circle. I was fascinated by the whole concept of understanding how language can affect people and the neurolinguistic elements had me wanting to re-up my lapsed Psychology Today subscription. The twists were about 80% predictable in the story though as you realize that certain characters are actually other ones well before the reveal happens. All the time spent in Australia had me feeling parched, and I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad one. Overall, I liked it.
Profile Image for Mike (the Paladin).
3,144 reviews1,851 followers
August 11, 2014
Hummmmmmm........interesting read. I must admit that what we have here is a fairly unique plot line. It's not TOTALLY unique (what is) but it's very, very close.

This is a good thing.

We open up here following a couple of story lines that will as we follow along become complimentary and entwined. Part of the "fun" (if I can use that word) is trying to put together the clues to figure out, "who's who and what fits where".

The book will I think draw you in from the first (it did me anyway). While there are a few places things seem to bog down just a bit on the whole it's an interesting trip through the lives of some interesting characters. It's a story of high stakes with power going to not only the strongest but the shrewdest player.

I think most will like this one and I can recommend it.
5 reviews
July 8, 2013
(I listened to this on audiobook. While it helped distinguish who was speaking in each chapter, the female reader's Australian accent was absolutely terrible. This may have biased me a bit when it came to this review).

The first half of this book was incredibly well organized and developed. I'm usually put off by books dealing with "secret societies", but this one drew me in more and more. As a former English teacher who taught argument and rhetoric, the concept of language, argument, and rhetoric being so powerful as to break past a person's perception filter (Dr. Who reference) and cause a person to act unconsciously really spoke to me (no pun intended).

The story begins to break down when "Woolfe" finds the bare word. The frantic and random nature of her freaking out and (eventually) attacking the box and how she broke out made me rather confused, and question why the author shifted her nature so suddenly. I get that Yates had effectively and subconsciously manipulated her to act in such a way, but the part felt out of the ordinary. I presumed that the following chapters would make sense out of this, but they just got more confusing. A piece of paper attached to the "bare word" causes everyone who looked at it to kill? (I did enjoy the ironic nature that the word and order to kill were located in an emergency room). It seemed like a "way-too-convenient" and weak plot device.

This next point, while brief, deserves its own paragraph. What I thought was a book about the "power of words", by the end, had become another victim of the cringeworthy thematic abomination that is "the power of love conquers all". The fact that Woolfe and Harry's "love" was more powerful than the bare word and the other command words makes this book akin to one of the orphaned paperback romances that corrupt an aisle at grocery stores everywhere. Of all the clichéd thematic abortions to surprisingly show up, it HAD to be the most stercoraceous one of all.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Aija.
528 reviews50 followers
July 30, 2020
Pilnīgi noteikti nebiju neko līdzīgu lasījusi iepriekš. Patika trillera elementi, patika spriedze, galvenā varone, bet visvairāk-ideja par to, kā vārdi spēj ar mums manipulēt un ir daudz spēcīgāki nekā ieroči. Jā, vārdi kā ieroči. Prāta spēles, tas, ko un kā pasakām īstajā laikā, vietā un intonācijā.
Nevar noliegt šī romāna aktualitāti tieši šobrīd, kad tik grūti plašsaziņas līdzekļos atšķirt patiesību no manipulatīviem meliem.
Profile Image for Kristin  (MyBookishWays Reviews).
601 reviews204 followers
September 5, 2013
You may also read my review here: http://www.mybookishways.com/2013/09/...

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.
Profile Image for Mike.
502 reviews378 followers
October 16, 2014
So what is a word? Sort of a funny question on its face. Words are one of those basic facts of life we don't really notice apart from the brief span of time we are learning to read. Words just exist as a sort of background noise of our lives, part of the scenery.

But words are so much more powerful than that. When you read a word there is a discernible change in your neural chemistry as your brain reads and processes it. The very same brain that controls movement, identity, motivations, passions. What if there existed words that did more than just change a little bit of brain chemistry, but actually hacked the brain, allowing it to be manipulated like a computer? (If this is reminding you of Snow Crash, you aren't alone)

Max Barry takes this idea and runs with it, creating a secret international society that has discovered words that can influence and control. Not just that, but they have such a thorough understanding of human psychology they can segment all of humanity into groups and use specifically tailored words and suggestions to influence them. Sort of scary, right? With a few words a person can be made to commit suicide, to passionately protect a hated enemy, to forget their identity and assume a new one. Really scary stuff.

Lexicon presents itself both as a thriller, with two of the characters forced together and on the run from members of this shadowy organization, and some nice world building through flashbacks of another character. Barry nicely balances character development, world building, and pacing with a smattering of in world media pieces that I always enjoy in books.

His extrapolation of the words as hacking tools and the organization that uses them was my favorite part of the book. Instead of just sitting on their laurels, they actively seek out new and better ways to understand human psychology and new words to unlock the human mind. Heck, I would read a whole book just about the school they send promising potential "poets" to. Barry's imagination and subtle understanding of the power of language and human thought was quite engaging and enjoyable to read.

My only complaint (and reason the book lost a star) was that the book ended too abruptly. It went from 99 mph (that's miles per hour for you folks who live under the tyranny of the metric system) thrill ride to a full stop at the end. I would have liked a bit more time for the narrative to breathe and some more relationship developments between characters. There was so much more of the world that could be explored (such as the non-english speaking members of the organization) and I would have loved to have seen more of the Eliot-Wil bromance when people weren't trying to kill them every 5 minutes.

All in all I highly recommend this book. It has a fun take on linguistics and some top notch, nuanced characters to get invested in. It is a very fast read that leaves me wanting so much more.
Profile Image for Deborah Ideiosepius.
1,676 reviews132 followers
January 30, 2021
I finished this completely engrossing book a while back but have been struggling to come to terms with how to review it. First of all I LOVED it utterly! I was sucked in to the story and the characters from the get go, I have no criticisms at all, about anything in this book (and people who no my reading habits know how rare a complete absence of criticism is). It is addictive, I loved reading it, was almost late for work once because I did not want to put it down, was happy coming back to it.... I was totally in love with this book.

Several things make it hard to review, it is a fast paced thriller all the way through but magical realism in other places, It is a fascinating and heavily addictive concept for all people who love books and words yet with a hint of sci-fi. Having read books by this author before I expected more science fiction, but if at all it is laid on with a very gentle touch.

Now there are different timelines and the same people can be in multiple timelines yet hiding with dual identities. The core story, is current day 'if you will, and the book kicks off with the cyberpunk-/ sci-fi element with Wil, a normal guy who has been grabbed getting off a flight home, the guys who grabbed him are beyond his comprehension, they are drugging him, inserting needles into his eyeball and asking him incomprehensible questions. Wil tells them they have the wrong person, he tells them whatever will get him out of this mess at to his girlfriend waiting outside the airport for him in her car, but his life is about to get way more complicated.

There is an organisation, we slowly learn through Wil's experiences and through a backstory, of a young woman called Emily Ruff, an organisation of 'poets'. They lose their original names and name themselves after dead poets, they train rigorously in an esoteric, innate ability to use words, some words, to manipulate and virtually take over normal people. They have it down to a very exact, very scary, science.

Wil is not a poet, he has no idea how he is involved but he knows he needs to run from 'poets' who want to kill him. The events and people converge around Broken Hill, NSW, Australia where two years prior to Wil's eyeball getting probed something so terrible was unleashed, that the entire population was killed and anyone who has walked in since has not walked out alive. Because it seems that some words can kill, other words can kill everything.

This was a marvellous thriller! It was an intoxicating concept to all who love words for their own sake and it was a beautifully crafted, exceptionally well written book.

Profile Image for Imi.
378 reviews112 followers
December 15, 2015
Honestly, I can't say I enjoyed reading this much. I have no idea why I read to the end, especially as it was one of my 2015 reading resolutions to quit more books that I wasn't enjoying, so I can read more books that I will enjoy, but I guess I've still got to work on this resolution in 2016. This is why my "abandoned-or-should-have" shelf is so much bigger than my "did-not-finish" shelf...

Anyway, so why didn't this work for me? It's kind of ironic that for a book about the "power of language", the fact that "words" do have influence, the writing is so limited and poor, the characters barely formed and the dialogue painful. Everyone is "badass" and says "f**k this or that", and really the characters are barely differentiated. Not to mention, all these "powerful" words that can influence others are complete gobbledygook (vrtkfdhl dkhgslh dj basically), so this is not the study of language that the premise promised. The author even tried to explain how these nonsense words are not "magic" words, because it's all so much more serious and complicated than that. Um...no. Nothing about the book is developed or coherent in any way. The secret organisation is laughable and without any apparent purpose. The actions scenes, a mass of chases basically, were ridiculous and a drag right from the very first page. The plot itself is aimless and built on plotholes. If it couldn't get any worse, there are also terrible sex scenes (why have I read so many books this year filled with bad sex scenes?! Someone needs to start warning me before I pick the books up!) and an icky love story. To sum up, it's a silly, incoherent mess and I really should have just quit.
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