The latest novel by Aussie author Max Barry is a gripping tale about the persuasive power of language. It's an exciting thriller, shot through with wry humour and observations about human nature and the modern media.
The two strands of the story follow two very different people. One is Emily Ruff, former homeless street hustler and now member of international organisation of "poets", people who can use words to make others do their bidding. The other is Wil Parke, sole survivor of a disaster which wiped out the population of the town of Broken Hill. Wil doesn't remember what happened but the poets are out to get him and he needs to find the weapon they are looking for before they find him.
Wil learns that Broken Hill was destroyed not by a toxic spill as reported in the media, but by a "bareword", a word so powerful and dangerous that it can be used to command anyone to do anything. It is literally the stuff of legend, as found in stories like that of the Tower of Babel when the power of such a word brought down a whole civilisation. Wil is apparently somehow immune to the bareword's effect, so the renegade poet, Tom, wants him to retrieve it before the other poets can get it back.
Emily is exiled from the elite poets' academy to live in Broken Hill, where she breaks one of the greatest taboos of the organisation by falling in love. Any display of desire makes a poet vulnerable by revealing to other poets how to manipulate them. It would be unwise to love another poet and it is far too easy to manipulate a non poet, even forcing them to love someone against their will. But what about someone who is immune to persuasion, and therefore free to reject her? For the first time Emily is truly vulnerable to having her heart broken.
The plot is reminiscent of Neal Stevenson's Snow Crash, which also deals with the legend of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of tongues, and also of Chuck Palahniuck's Lullaby, which features a poem or song which can kill anyone who hears it. However, the way these ideas are dealt with in Lexicon is quite different and original.
Lexicon is a real page turner, and I burned through it pretty quickly, desperate to find out what happened next. In parts it is spine chilling. In particular, the phrase "I've got something in my eye" has never been so creepy. However, it's also a story about love and redemption with characters you can really cheer for. It's a well crafted novel which will leave you thinking about it for a while after you finish the last page.