Lexicon is a clever, often humorous sci-fi thriller that is all about words. Set in some alternate universe –though we’re never fully sure of that, or the year it is set in- where power is wielded by word-magicians known as poets. People are chosen because they’re good with words, and have a knack of persuasion –the ability to make people do things against their own nature, even kill or be told to kill themselves.
When we meet Emily Ruff, she’s a teenager living on the streets of San Francisco, coning people out of money by playing the old standard of three-card monte. She is whisked away to an academy, though there is no Harry Potter or Professor Dumbeldore awaiting her, just folks named after poets, like T.S. Eliot and Charlotte Bronte.
And, as you might expect, she does well, moving swiftly up the ladder, to achieve the greatest accomplishment, a Poet (she is then called Virginia Woolf). Still, her rise to top is not that fully easy, as she has behavioral issues that get her exiled to a small town in Australia. After a four year stint there -and where she falls in love with a paramedic (something poets are not supposed to do)- she is brought back to DC. But her love for Harry is so strong that steals the “barewood," a device of unimaginable power, perhaps biblical in nature, and ventures back to Broken Hill, where she unintentionally is forced to unleash its horrible power.
By setting the novel in some other place, it gives Max Barry a lot of room not to explain what the “barewood” actually is (and mostly, it’s a MacGuffin) so he can write about the power of language and the use of words, how they persuade us, how they engage us, and how they can be used in the most beautiful way, but can also be used in the most ugly way. It’s a well done thriller that will make you a bit less sure of your friends, foes, family and co-workers when they try to convince you they’re right about something.