Lexicon by Max Barry

If you’re a fan of speculative fiction or sci-fi crime, the combination of conspiracy theories, figures of absolute power, evil and some badass survivor skills are reason enough to pick up Lexicon. Max Barry’s knack for pacey action and dialogue and intriguing and believable characters will draw you in within the first ten pages.

Students are recruited from around the country to an exclusive boarding school in Virginia, where they learn the power of language, and the art and science of coercion. They are taught that a person’s mind can be manipulated and their thoughts controlled. The smartest and most disciplined will graduate as ‘poets’ and go on to work for an immensely powerful secret organisation.

The novel opens with a scene of fast, sharp, unattributed dialogue as two men stand over a third, Wil, as he regains consciousness. Something is amiss and there’s a sense of panic in the room. The action-filled sequence and chase scene that follows plunge both Wil and the reader into a reality that exists on completely alien terms. What is at first pleasurably disorienting becomes a mystery to be untangled.

Jump back a few years and enter Emily, a street kid with a knack for card tricks. Although she is not immediately loveable – she’s small and mousy, and perhaps not so bright when it comes to the company she keeps – I found myself rooting for her. When a mysterious stranger shows up with an offer that Emily can’t refuse, you’re not sure if this means anything good, but you hope she might just make the best of it somehow.

Barry draws out the revelations behind these two strands, withholding forgotten details and hinting at paths crossed. It’s frustrating and suspenseful, and exactly the reason we read science fiction. Lexicon’s pace is, for the most part, captivating, though I felt that it did slow down a little towards the final third of the book. But by the end, I was thoroughly convinced of Barry’s ability to lay out a suspenseful, resolved, and actually rather disturbing, action-packed climax.

Amy Vuleta works as a bookseller at Readings St Kilda.