It’s easy to underestimate the challenges of crafting contemporary fantasy, especially when one compares the task with that of writing its older cousin, the traditional swords-and-sorcery fantasy. But just because the author of a contemporary fantasy can skip some expository steps in character development and setting if the protagonist is an ex-Navy SEAL named Josh living in Boston instead of, say, a 12th-degree death-o-mancer named Magyar Trothan who lives in the land of Whimsicalia, that doesn’t mean taking the less fantastical road is easy. After all, anything that happens in the mostly real, present-day world is subject to the immediate scrutiny of countless experts—plenty of readers will be familiar with Boston or have a family member in the military, whereas no one other than the author will possess any firsthand knowledge on death-o-mancer training. (Granted, the Whimsicalian Wiki will be up a few days after the book is published.)
Nonetheless, most crafters of fantasy, traditional or contemporary, have one big hurdle in common: devising a system of “magic” that’s fresh, compelling and coherent.
With his latest book, Australian author Max Barry (Jennifer Government, Company) easily clears this often fatal hurdle with a premise (and system) guaranteed to appeal to readers: Words have power, and some words have a lot of power. In Lexicon, a global organization whose members refer to themselves as “the poets” employs psycho-linguistic tactics to control, well, pretty much anything or anyone. But like any other multinational concern, even super-secret groups have staffing needs. In the orphaned Emily Ruff, they find someone who may or may not be a powerful addition to their organization. Barry alternates the chapters covering her recruitment and training with tense action sequences involving a man named Wil and his mysterious captors (or protectors?). These are maddeningly opaque at first, though the blistering pace—more reminiscent of a Ludlum spy thriller than anything else—makes the difficulty in gaining one’s bearings tolerable.
By book’s end, Lexicon has revealed itself as a contemporary fantasy that’s three parts thriller and one part romance (somewhat diluted). In the process, Barry’s tale provides its reader with an intriguing, satisfying ride through a world where the phrase “has a way with words” refers to the author’s own world-building as much as to the characters who inhabit it.