Book review: Lexicon by Max Barry

Book links: Amazon, Goodreads

AUTHOR INFO: Max Barry is the author of numerous novels, including Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He is also the developer of the online nation simulation game NationStates. Prior to his writing career, Barry worked at tech giant HP. He lives in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife and two daughters. To learn more, visit or follow @MaxBarry on Twitter.

Publisher: Penguin Books (Apr 01, 2014) Print length: 416 p Formats: ebook, paperback, audiobook

 “Vartix velkor mannik wissick”

I believe in the power of words. So do the Poets. Not daydreaming ones. Nope. I’m speaking about a secret society whose members adopt names of renowned poets like Yeats and Eliot, and who refined their language and persuasion skills to bend others to their will.

The book follows two main threads that eventually converge. The first follows Emily, a young woman with a natural ability to influence others. Poets recruit her and teach her that humans all fail into several personality segments. Identifying them allows us to apply the right language to influence them. She also learns that some words are stronger than others.

The second thread centers on Wil, a young man who awakens to a needle piercing his eyeball, while two menacing figures loom over him. Ouch. And things get downhill from here.

I absolutely loved the concept behind the book. Words controlling people and “programming” their behavior? Nothing new for business-savvy marketing professionals, but a fresh concept in speculative fiction. Plus, Barry’s take on the topic finds a perfect balance between a thrilling ride with guns blazing and car chases, character development, and underlying philosophy.

Poets are conscious of how words manipulate us. Most of them become privacy nuts who shut off from everyone and never risk giving their true selves away. It comes with a cost – isolation, illusions of grandeur, and sociopathic tendencies. Love? Forget about it. Poets coerce people against their will, using their unique knowledge and power. Power corrupts and we clearly see it here.

Emily, Eliot (her mentor), and Wil are excellent characters, easy to like when they’re not terrifying you with their skills. Both Eliot and Emily can turn into stone-cold killers but nothing’s what it initially seems in this book. 

Aside from revolving around a fascinating topic (words able to obliterate civilizations), Lexicon is an extremely readable thriller with jaw-dropping twists and high-octane action. The narrative constantly shifts perspectives between characters, making the story fun to decipher and filled with suspense. 

Lexicon gets my highest recommendation – it entertains but also makes you think bout the powers of words and how easily they can manipulate us.

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