Max Barry

The Penguin Press

…Like the gunmen who went around assassinating people with military-issue sniper rifles in 2003. Like the anthrax in the mall in 2006. For a few weeks everyone freaks out, we need more security, we need scanners, we need to take people’s photograph when they enter a government building. Then a month later everyone’s calmed down and yet we still get these incredibly intrusive new processes and technologies, which would have made zero difference to the incident that inspired them. This isn’t an accident; this happens because to people at the top, the scariest thing is how many people there are below. They need to watch us. They need to monitor what we’re thinking. It’s the only thing between them and a guillotine. Every time something like this happens, anytime there’s death and fear and people demanding action, to them that’s an opportunity.                                             

                              From Lexicon


Perhaps some poetry with your paranoia?

Wil Parke has been abducted for some important information that he possesses, though he has no idea what it is. He and his abductors are being pursued by a vast and powerful organization that also wants him and this knowledge. Along with the reader, Wil tries to make some sense of all this: What is this information that he supposedly possesses? Why can’t he remember it? Who are his abductors—and, by the way, are they the good guys or the bad guys?


Sixteen-year old Emily Ruff is a youth living by her exceptionally sharp wits on the streets of San Francisco. Smart, independent and gutsy, Emily is recruited to attend a school for exceptional kids, but a school like none other, where the students are trained to control other people’s minds through the skillful application of words. Those who oversee the school are called Poets, and they and the instructors have adopted names like Yeats, Brontë, and Eliot.

Emily is at first intrigued by this school and enjoys its benefits, and she excels at the curriculum; but being a natural rebel, she begins to chafe at the rules and limitations imposed on the students. Eventually, she is expelled…with some dangerous skills.

The narrative seesaws between these two seemingly unrelated stories, going down parallel tracks, until they suddenly converge.

Lexicon is being touted as a “cerebral thriller”, and it certainly has all the requisite thrills, chills and implausible situations of the thriller genre.

The dialogue is crisp and fast-moving:

“Persuade them to stop chasing us…Offer them something. Make a deal. Give them something they want.”

“But what they want is you.”

“Something else.”

This is one of those books whose reading induces paranoia and makes you regret ever having given out your social security number and mother’s maiden name. Or even having a social security number.

We’re talking mind control here, far more sophisticated than Orwell ever imagined in 1984, with its clunky totalitarian attempts at suppressing individual thoughts and desires. But then we have gone far beyond 1984 in so many ways.

The message we are left with is that words are powerful. Words are magical. Words can be dangerous. But then, we already knew that.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (August 15-September 14, 2013.) Reprinted with permission.