“Lexicon” by Max Barry (Mulholland Books)

BarryM-LexiconA superb new thriller, from the author of Jennifer Government

At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren’t taught history, geography, or mathematics—they are taught to persuade. Students learn to use language to manipulate minds, wielding words as weapons. The very best graduate as “Poets,” and enter a nameless organization of unknown purpose.

Whip-smart runaway Emily Ruff is making a living from three-card Monte on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organization’s recruiters. Drawn in to their strange world, which is populated by people named Brontë and Eliot, she learns their key rule: That every person can be classified by personality type, his mind segmented and ultimately unlocked by the skillful application of words. For this reason, she must never allow another person to truly know her, lest she herself be coerced. Adapting quickly, 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 Parke is brutally ambushed by two men in an airport bathroom. They claim he is the key to a secret war he knows nothing about, that he is an “Outlier,” immune to segmentation. Attempting to stay one step ahead of the organization and its mind-bending poets, Wil and his captors seek salvation in the toxically decimated town of Broken Hill, Australia, which, if ancient stories are true, sits above an ancient glyph of frightening power.

I’m going to keep this review very short (for me). Lexicon is filled with twists, revelations, and a superb blending of timelines that makes it rather difficult to review sans spoilers. Needless to say, though, Lexicon is a thoroughly enjoyable, gripping and original thriller.

The novels starts with a kidnapping at an airport that is at once amusing, while also quite excellently, uncomfortably mirroring the drugged-nature and mindset of the victim, Wil. (A brave choice, to be sure, as it was a little weird…) Over the course of the novel, we follow Wil, as he has one brush with death after another – the plan of his kidnapper, Tom, goes to hell in a hand basket fast, so they form a weird kind of partnership (I won’t spoil why).

The narrative switches between Wil’s story and that of Emily. Emily, one of our primary protagonists, is great. She starts off as a huckster on the streets of San Francisco, scraping by on card tricks and scamming tourists and gullible locals alike. She is approached by some strange man in a suit, who seems to have a considerable power of suggestion… After passing a potentially-degrading test, she is taken to the school (mentioned in the synopsis, above), and we see her learn various aspects of what they can teach – advanced persuasion, if you will (or, linguistic manipulation, if we’re being a bit more honest). The school is run by an ancient secret society called the Poets, which uses words as weapons. Emily develops into their most gifted, and also troubled, member. Her story follows her rise within the school, and her education there. In her younger years, I was reminded of Veronica Mars, for some reason. I could totally see Kristen Bell playing her in a movie… I thought Barry handled her story arc, and development very well. There were plenty of endearing moments, and also heartbreaking moments.

As story progresses, these two threads inevitably join (not how I expected, but it happens about a third of the way in). Barry mixes up timelines without much signposting, but it works.

The author writes with a great prose style: it is inviting, engaging, extremely well-paced, and sprinkled with a fair few quips and funny asides, which only made me love the story and characters even more.

Overall, Lexicon is a superb thriller. It touches upon a number of modern questions of privacy, identity, and perhaps most importantly, the rising obsession of data-collection. Barry weaves these topics into a tapestry that also underlines the power of language and coercion. It is utterly engrossing, and brilliantly written.

Very highly recommended. Lexicon is easily one of my favourite reads of the year.



Max Barry is a superb author. I haven’t read as much of his stuff as I would like, and I’m due a re-read of Jennifer Government at some point in the near future. His latest novel, Lexicon, is one of my favourite reads of 2013 so far, and will be reviewed tomorrow. He was kind enough to take some time out of a busy schedule to answer some questions for me…

Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Max Barry?

Max Barry is a Melbourne-based author who runs an online political simulation game in his spare time. Except by “spare time” I mean “time he should be spending writing novels.”

I thought we’d start with your fiction: Your latest novel, Lexicon, was recently published by Mulholland Books. How would you introduce the novel to a potential reader?

I’d probably be all like, “I wrote this book about… stuff.” Because I’m terrible at describing my own work. But someone else said, “Modern-day sorcerers fight a war of words.” That’s not too bad. It’s a thriller.


Lexicon is about the power of language. What inspired you to write the novel? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?

The novel came from a lot of little ideas intersecting, one of which was privacy: the notion that so much of what we do is tracked now, and analyzed, and used to figure out what kind of person we are. So what used to be a very personal decision – how and when we reveal ourselves to other people – has been taken away.

How were you introduced to reading and genre fiction?

I’m not sure kids need to be introduced to genre fiction. If you’re an eight-year-old boy and you see a picture of a book with a dragon on it, you want that book. I’ve always loved reading; my parents made sure I was never short of a book.

How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?

BarryM-AuthorPicI have the best job in the world: I get to make up stories all day, I can work in my underwear, and people periodically email me to say, “Hey! Great job!” It’s like the opposite of a real job. Except for the part about making up stories all day. Because I used to work in sales.

I don’t have a formal routine. I do try to make sure I’m at the keyboard, ready to write creatively, every weekday. I don’t force myself to write if it’s not working. But I always give it a shot.

When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?

I don’t remember ever not wanting to be an author. I realized it wasn’t a very practical goal, but it was what I wanted. Pretty much all of my formal education was acquired with the aim of staving off homelessness while I wrote novels on the side.

What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?

I don’t write to any particular genre. Which is kind of stupid, for both creative and commercial reasons. But I’ve never cared too much about genre. I am usually shelved in the sci-fi section, but I think you can read my books without really noticing their genre.

What other projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?

I no longer talk about books I’m working on. I used to, in great detail, but then it was embarrassing when the book turned out to be unpublishable. So I stopped. Also, I feel authors need a long period of quiet discovery with their books. Talking about them early kills a little of the magic for me.

What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?

I’ve just started Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. The most recent non-fic I’ve read is The Signal And The Noise by Nate Silver, which was really good.


What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?

I can tell what’s wrong with your computer just by listening to it.

That’s not true. I have to SSH in and run some diagnostics. But that’s almost the same thing. I know more about Linux systems administration than is healthy.

What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?

Working on a good book.

Interview with BENJAMIN PERCY


Benjamin Percy is the author of the excellent Red Moon – which I consider one of the best novels of the year (and certainly within the top ten in the past few years). I thoroughly enjoyed what he did with the werewolf mythology, and also how he wove into his narrative many of today’s social issues and prejudices. I had the pleasure of very briefly meeting him at the Arthur C. Clarke Awards (he sat behind me). Last week, he was kind enough to take a few minutes to answer some questions for Civilian Reader…

Who is Benjamin Percy?

An author with sideburns sharp enough to cut and a voice deep enough to crumble the foundations of buildings and set hair aflame. He has summited mountains, performed brain surgery, and juggled flaming chainsaws — all at the same time! Continue reading