Max Barry isn't the first writer of recent vintage who has opted to create a work of speculative fiction devoted to the destructive power of words; Ben Marcus' "The Flame Alphabet" is a notable, and perhaps, better, example. With "Lexicon", Barry offers readers a spellbinding alternate history work that will remind readers of a cross between a young Neal Stephenson ("Zodiac", "Snow Crash") and Elmore Leonard ("Get Shorty"), that, is truly, to quote Time magazine media critic and author Lev Grossman, a work that is almost the "perfect cerebral thriller: searingly smart, ridiculously funny, and fast as hell". Indeed, "Lexicon" is especially noteworthy for its intricate, rather suspenseful, plotting, though exhibiting far less sophistication than anything I have read from the likes of Graham Greene, John Le Carre or China Mieville, but still displaying more than enough to keep readers in suspense until the very end. To his credit, Barry offers readers a novel that is almost as compelling a novel of ideas, as it is of fast-paced action; however, his level of sophistication, especially with regards to his world building of the "poets" and their secret history, pales in comparison with the best I have seen from the likes of Neal Stephenson ("The Diamond Age", "Anathem"), China Mieville ("The City and the City", "Kraken", "Embassytown"), Paolo Bacigalupi ("The Wind-up Girl"), Matt Ruff ("Bad Monkeys", "The Mirage") and William Gibson ("Neuromancer", "Count Zero", "Idoru"), to name but a few. In plain English, "Lexicon" is far more enjoyable as entertainment than for thoughtfully exploring "language, power, identity, and our capacity to love, whatever the cost" (to quote from the concluding sentence of the book jacket copy); it should not be compared favorably with the notable works I have cited from the likes of Bacigalupi, Gibson, Stephenson, and especially, Mieville and Ruff.
Barry introduces us to an alternate version of the present; one dominated by a secret society of "poets"; men and women who have been trained in the art of literary manipulation to such a degree that they can use their knowledge to manipulate others, causing injuries and deaths. A young orphan, Emily Ruff, rescued from the streets of San Francisco, becomes the prize pupil at the poets' suburban Virginian private school, until she allows herself to fall in love; a cardinal sin of the poets that is prohibited simply because expressing such an emotion would leave one vulnerable to manipulation. Wil, a man without a past, becomes a pawn in a bitter, deadly, civil war between rival factions of the poets; a civil war that knows no national boundaries and results in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. The fate of the poets - and of the world itself - rests on the acts committed by Emily and Wil as they draw closer to each other, setting the stage for a potential apocalypse; their separate treks will keep readers spellbound until the very end. For these reasons - and despite its flaws - "Lexicon" may be one of the most discussed new novels being read this year.