Lexicon by Max Barry

First off, I do not recommend this book. There are some books where I am so fond of the writing/characters/story etc., that I am willing to sit through some profanity and immorality. But there were really no redeeming qualities in this case. It was a page turner, to be sure, but not in the "oh my I don't ever want to stop reading this" way. More of a "GAH IT'S ALMOST OVER SO CLOSE HAVE TO FINISH PLEASE END PLEASE END" kind of way. 

Spoilers ahead.
Now then, this is really just a rant, so it's very confusing and I have tried to sort of break it up but I don't know how well it worked. So um....don't waste your time on this book, it is terrible and lame. Its author did write a book called "syrup" so I had low expectations going in. I think perhaps a second read would better explain something, but I'm unwiling to endure it again.


An unusual school teaches it's students to use words to manipulate the minds of others. Emily Ruff is earning her bread with card tricks in the street, when she is recruited by the school. The graduates of this school take the names of dead poets. The headmistress is Charlotte Brontë, the man in charge of everything: Yeats. "Emily becomes the school's most talented prodigy, until she makes a catastrophic mistake: She falls in love."

Will Parke is kidnapped from an airport bathroom, by two men claiming he is 'the key to a secret war'. 

The premise is quite interesting, and that was what made me want to read it. When you say a word to someone, it triggers a neurological reaction in their mind. They translate it into meaning or memories or something and it effects a change, however slight, in them. The idea of this book (I think) is that you could highjack that, if you said the right words. At the school you learn how to quickly discover a person's 'segment' (a very specific personality type) and use the correct words to manipulate that person. Intriguing. 

Unfortunately, all of the parts I would have found interesting were just cut out of the book and replaced with sex, cursing, and profanity. Boring, to say the least. 
The initial idea that had attracted me (the power of words), turned out to be handled weakly and not given much time in the spotlight. Emily starts at the school having no idea what is going on, and you think that you will learn with her. But no. It just skips ahead to her understanding everything and all you get is "everything works just because". 

All of the explanations are weak and incomplete. 

The Broken Hill catastrophe: 
Towards the end of the book, you learn that the organization that runs the school was in posession of a bareword, and was testing it on people. The bareword is a piece of wood with a word written on it that makes anyone who sees it susceptible to command (there are so many things about it that don't make sense). Yeats compromises Emily/Virginia W to make her steal the bareword, go to Broken Hill, write the words "kill everyone" on a piece of paper, and stick it on the bareword. The people who saw it started to kill other people. People came to fight and help, and ALSO saw the word, and started killing people. That is the mysterious Broken Hill thing, that is spoken of throughout the book.

Inconsistencies and Foolishness: 
Wil/Harry is supposed to be immune to language manipulation, but somehow Emily comes up with the words to control him. There are a number of problems with the whole language thing but here are my main ones: 

  • You learn that you can discover someone's segment with a few simple questions (which is already weak and stupid, as far as I am concerned). But nothing is ever said about how this works. What sort of answers point to what. Then later in the book, Emily figures out someone's segment without saying a word to them (she does this multiple times). 
  • It says somewhere in the book that it is easier to resist compromise (being controlled by words) in a learned language. The only way this makes sense, is if the words have no power if there is no meaning in your mind that corresponds to them. In a language you knew nothing of, there would be no way to control you. Yet the words that are used to control the people are nonsense. They are written in the book, and they are gibberish. So there would be no meaning associated with them in anyone's head, and they would have no power. It would have been cool if they had connected the powerful words with some ancient language. Perhaps "the first language' or something like that, but it is gibberish. 
  • Emily teaches herself 'words' by saying syllables of nonsense to people to see if they react. That way she pieces together words on her own, without being taught. When she is trying to compromise the supposedly immune Wil/Harry to save his life (and make hime forget her), she just does that, and comes up with the words to control him. You have to use different words for different segments of people. So you could say that Wil/Harry is a segment that no one has ever discovered words for. BUT the bareword was able to control ALL segments, so that argument falls through, since it didn't work on Wil. Either way, this is stupid. 
  • Emily/Woolf goes through an elaborate process to make a copy of the bareword. She can't look at it all together (but if parts of spoken words work, so should parts of the bareword) so she takes pictures, and somehow manages to piece it together without ever looking at it all at once. A few things.... someone had to carve that word in the first place, and so someone way back when, had all that power and we just don't talk about it. If it is really just the markings themselves, and copies work just as well as copies of an actual word would, how is it that the 'organization' never even TRIED to make a copy? They have had this for a bit, and been testing it on people. Surely they would have thought of this.
  • Yeats makes Emily/Woolf release the word in Broken Hill as a test, I believe, or something like that. He wants to see it at work. He is crazy. But other than that, his character is never given any purpose or drive. He had already been testing on people, he knew what the bareword would do, and he could have had world domination by now if he'd wanted it. I found him to be unsatisfactory. The sort of villain who has no motivation, and the only explanation given for them is "they're evil, they're the bad guys, that's why". WEAK!
  • At the end there is a random memo thingy that is, I believe, a weak attempt to explain random things, but it is just digging itself in farther. It says that bilingual people have increased resistance to compromise. "We've theorized that when the brain is keyed into one language, words from another are more likely to be first-stage filtered as nonsense syllables-not actually processed as words, i.e., carriers of meaning". So "vartix velkor mannik wissick" is NOT likely to be processed as nonsense? There is also a scene where someone is being compromised in arabic, and the words are written in arabic. So each language has it's own random nonsense words. It's a wonder that babies are accidentally compromising people all the time. 
  • Ignoring all the problems with how the language thing works, and accepting that it JUST DOES, how on earth is anyone immune to it? There is no explanation for that, it is stupid, turns out to only be true when convenient, and is dumb. 
  • The memo also says "we believe a bareword belongs to a fundamental language of the human mind–the tongue in which the human animal speaks to itself at the basest level. The machine language." This SORT of holds up, but I'm not convinced. I don't know much about how the body works, but I'm pretty sure it communicates with itself using something more akin to electricity. Hence all the sci-fi in which people are mind controlled using something that plugs into their brain and messes with synapses or some such weirdness. The idea that hearing things could cause your brain to translate and react in a certain way was a cool premise that I was interested in. But if you see scratches on wood that correspond to no letters or words or anything like that, it would be received as an image, not a word. 
  • ALSO, if the bareword is a fundamental language of all humanity, having nothing to do with personality, language, upbringing or ANYTHING but the fact that they are a human animal, how is Wil/Harry immune to it? Is he not human? Turns out he actually CAN be controlled with regular 'words' by Emily, so that makes the bareword immunity even more ridiculous. 
  • When someone dies, anyone they have compromised is apparently free from their orders. This makes no sense. To compromise someone, you say the right words, and they are in your control. Whenever you want, supposedly, you can tell them what to do. You have highjacked their brain, it now believes that it wants what you want. But there is no upkeep required. You don't have to re-compromise the person every day. There is no connection between your minds that keeps them on track. So why would they be free if you died? The highjack is finished. It's too late. It's like saying that if you shoot someone in the head, they will be totally fine once you are dead. 


I'm not sure if this book was trying to be mysterious or not. Because if it was, it failed miserably. I figured out almost at once that the two different storylines were also in different times. 

So there is the story of Emily Ruff; her mentor, Eliot; and the love of her life, Harry. 
Then there is Wil Parke, his mysterious kidnapper Tom, and their powerful enemy, Virginia Woolf.

Tom is Eliot, and the whole Emily thing takes place BEFORE the Wil story. I thought that it was so obvious, it must have been intentionally so, but it's hard to be sure. 

Eliot, would of course be TS Eliot, so I was just looking for the only person whose name began with a T. Brontë is mentioned in the very beginning, so the minute I saw someone named Charlotte, I knew who that was. 
Wil Parke is, of course, Harry. This was a conclusion I came to because I didn't think the book had it in it to have very many developed characters. So I was looking around in the Emily storyline to see who Wil Parke could be, and when I saw Harry I thought "oh that's him". 
The way the book was being "oooooo so mysterious" about Virginia Woolf, had me convinced that she and Emily Ruff were the same person, almost at once. The fact that Yeats was the real bad guy took a little longer to figure out, but I never actually believed that it was Virginia/Emily. 

The only thing that really had me mildly interested was the Broken Hill catastrophe. You find out early on that Wil is the only survivor of Broken Hill. Eliot wants to find out how, and hopes to learn from him what happened at Broken Hill, and use him to retrieve the bareword. I actually had no idea what had happened until I was told. 

Timeline weirdness: So. Most of the book is okay in terms of time. Emily and Wil are intercut, but Emily is pre-catastrophe and Wil is post. Then there are some flashbacks, which are very confusing, but whatever. 
And then, towards the end, it just goes all over the place. Emily has reached the point right before everyone in Broken Hill dies, and then suddenly there are other POVs introduced, and their time settings are ambiguous and then there is Eliot doing things in the Emily timeline while in the Wil timeline, he is having flashbacks to the Emily timeline. I had no idea when anything was happening. Looking back through it, I think that Mr. Barry was also confused about the timelines. 

MORE plot holes and unexplained stupidness: 
The flow of the book was choppy, had plenty of plot holes, and random unexplained scenes that seemed to serve no purpose. 

  • It begins with Wil waking up to discover that there is a needle in his eye, and Eliot is doing something to him. Then suddenly he is in an airport, getting off a plane to go to his girlfriend, but his eye still hurts. He is then kidnapped by Eliot (again?). The first scene is NEVER explained. How was Wil captured the first time? How did he then escape, to get off a plane and have no memory of the event? What was the point of sticking a needle in his eye (if you are probing someone's brain, that is not the way to do it). And then for no particular reason, Eliot can mysteriously read his mind. 
  • It is near-impossible that NO ONE but Wil/Harry survived Broken Hill. If you are on the edge of town with your family, and people start killing everyone, maybe dad goes to try and help, but his family is told to get in the car and leave. Plenty of people died who HADN'T seen the kill order, so they were in the same position as Wil/Harry, who had seen it but not been affected by it. There is no reason why he should have been the only one to make it out. 
  • We also learn that Emily/Virginia Woolf saw a reflection of the bareword, and so while it didn't completely take over her brain, she has a kill order in her head, and a need to obey it. She focuses this on killing Yeats. He takes control of her (in an incredibly stupid scene), and the idea is that if he dies, she will have nowhere to focus her 'kill everyone' order and won't be able to control herself. So at the end of the book, when she is reunited with Wil/Harry, she tells him she loves him, and then compromises him (remember, she learned how earlier) and tells him to kill her, because with Yeats dead, she is too dangerous. Cut to them being together, she isn't dead, and isn't trying to kill anyone. No explanation. Nothing. 
  • Yeats realizes that Eliot isn't really on his side, but doesn't compromise him. He thinks Eliot powerful and useful, but lets him go. Why?
  • At some point, Eliot decides that Wil/Harry really doesn't remember who he is and says "She made you forget".  Which doesn't make sense, because Eliot still firmly believed that Wil was immune, and that was the main reason he wanted him. So if he thought that Wil could be made to forget, why would he keep him?

There were many many many more things like this.


Emily Ruff/Virginia Woolf: 
In my opinion, this book would have been MUCH better if Emily HAD turned out bad. Because for the brief moment between figuring out who she was, and coming to the conclusion that she wasn't actually a villain, I thought to myself "oh wow, I'm really interested to see her journey from good to villain." But the route that was taken was "everything bad she ever did was because Yeats was controlling her (having used the power of words, which is a power that leaves you wondering "why doesn't Yeats have EVERYONE under his control, he only has to talk to them once and they are good to go?). So Emily seemed liked she was going to have a cool character arc, and ended up with nothing. 

This guy was definitely the most developed and believable character. I almost liked him. His journey, from 'stickler for the rules' to 'people are going to die I have to do something' was interesting. His feelings about Emily, who he had grown to care about (as a daughter, nothing weird), and how he dealt with that while believing that she had turned. I did not, however, like him enough to care when he died.

Harry Wilson/Wil Park: 
So, I get that Wil has forgotten who he was. He doesn't know that he is Wil, he doesn't know that he was in love with Emily. But his entire personality is completely different from that of Harry. Which is odd, considering that they are the same person. I sort of liked Harry, and I didn't like Wil at all. And his relationship with Emily was weird, because he knew nothing about her, she couldn't reveal her actual self to him, lied to him a lot, and somehow they had a healthy-ish relationship for a long time? And then later, as Wil, when he remembers loving Emily, he just doesn't seem to care that she lied to him and isn't really the person he thought she was....oh yeah, and killed an entire town. Against her wil (har har) but I feel like that would be a little hard to get over.

The Villain: 
As I said, he is just sort of there. Has no backstory, motivation, compelling traits...anything. I didn't even hate him, I mostly just forgot about him, and when he was mentioned I was completely indifferent. With a good villain, I am anxious for them to be stopped, put in jail, killed etc. But I just didn't care. There was no feeling of triumph when Emily broke free from his control. No 'oh no' went through my mind when he first compromised her. There was no sense of foreboding when I realized that he was going to do something. I didn't think "oh he is so creepy", though I guess maybe he was. 

Everyone else:
Everyone else felt like a random stick figure or plot device, I don't recall any other people in this book.  


The entire book. 
F*** is used basically every page. The entire book was riddled with gratuitous immorality, profanity, blasphemy, cursing, stupidity, plot holes, senselessness, bad writing, lame characters, un-compelling backstory. It is also a quick read, because there is such a lack of actual content and a poorly executed plot. 

I believe I made a couple terrible puns out of the silly spelling of Wil's name. It was kind of irresistible.
Also what about Cecilia? It seemed as though Wil actually loved her (or maybe he was compromised as immunity only counts half of the time). She is my favourite character.

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  1. How did this book get published???

    1. I think that it would be liked for most of the reasons I hate it. The easily replaceable characters, the cursing, and the sexual stuff. Those sorts of things seem popular. If it was a movie, however, people would expect more. Which is sad. If it were a movie, there would be low ratings for the bad characters and all the plot holes. People would make cynical youtube videos to laugh at all the stupid scenes and places where previously stated facts were ignored.

    2. I'm not sure if this book makes me hopeful or depressed... because obviously a book doesn't need to be GOOD to be published... but then, if this is what is popular I'm afraid I'm failing.

    3. Yeah I can't decide if I want my book to be liked. Because it would be nice, and I would make money...., but I have also seen where I would be on the YA shelf at the library, and I don't like it. The idea that the audiences who loved things like Twilight and Lexicon were fond of my book, would be rather horrid.

  2. Ok it really wasn't the best book, I agree. The double time plot line was a little obvious, and I didn't like the characters. I think it had an interesting concept but didn't really portray it in a successful way.

    1. I was actually kind of excited for the part about words (I love them) and to be hit with a completely senseless pile of gibberish was rather unpleasant. And seriously, what about Cecilia?