Book review: Lexicon by Max Barry

LexiconLexicon by Max Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Are you a cat person or a dog person?
What’s your favorite color?
Do you love your family?
Why did you do it?

Answering those four simple questions enables someone who has been expertly trained in the art of persuasion to tag you, bag you, and manipulate you into doing anything, anything at all, simply by speaking a few words. Or so says Max Barry in this lightning-fast paranoid fantasy of a novel.

Some years ago, Emily Ruff, a teenage runaway living on the streets of San Francisco by her wits and a facility for sleight-of-hand, is recruited to enter an exclusive school for the purpose of training her to use words as weapons in the manner described above. She’s rebellious and disdainful of authority and the curriculum, but avoids being expelled because Eliot, the operative who recruited her, defends her and her capabilities to the higher-ups.

Then things go awry. And I mean awry in a destructive, deadly fashion.

Meanwhile, in the present day, Wil Parke is abducted in broad daylight and administered the test questions listed at the top of this review, but he then fails to follow the instructions he is given by his abductors. “Yep, he’s the one,” they conclude and drag him off to parts unknown, where he is informed by Eliot of a mission he must fulfill because he’s the only one immune to “the Word.”

The story bounces back and forth between Emily in the past and Wil in the present, and eventually leads the reader to the connection between them, and something horrific that happened in a remote Australian town.

In between, we are treated to multiple examples of how the information and personality traits we inadvertently reveal through conversation and those seemingly-innocuous online quizzes can be turned against us. It’s enough to make one’s skin crawl.

Max Barry has a gift for plot-driven stories that move forward at Warp 10 but still manage to give the reader decently-realized characters and generally plausible storylines. Lexicon is no different. I picked this book up at the library yesterday afternoon, spent about two hours reading it while having a pedicure, and then another two hours while waiting for my car to be serviced, then finished the last 60 or 70 pages left this morning. I thought it was great fun. And more than a little creepy.

And I doubt I’ll be taking any more of those stupid quizzes that get posted to Facebook.

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