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REVIEW: The Devil’s Alphabet by Daryl Gregory


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A young man goes home to wrestle with his issues, while his home has to wrestle with even larger issues.

PROS: Strong characters, world-building, mystery. SFnal elements perfectly complement the character-based parts of the story.
CONS: Main character can be hard to sympathize with, doesn’t quite live up to my favorite parts of Gregory’s short fiction.
BOTTOM LINE: The strengths of this book vastly outweigh any reservations I may have about the future trajectory of the author’s literary career. Great for near-future sf readers who appreciate world-building and unique characters.

Let me introduce you to part of the story that Daryl Gregory tells in Devil’s Alphabet: a young man has been kicking around a big city for years, going nowhere and disaffected with life. When he hears that one of his childhood friends has died, he returns home for her funeral. This opens all sorts of old wounds, both with his friends and with his father. The unresolved issues here loom large: his father was a small town preacher. Being caught in a compromising situation with two of his friends, including the one now buried, was enough for his father to throw him out. He wonders if his friend’s twin girls are his own. Alongside the issues of the past are issues of the present: his father is aging and can no longer completely care for himself, others in the town would like to get him into a nursing home. And then issues of the future: the small town is fighting for its own future against larger governmental forces that want to step in. The young man also struggles with drug addiction. There are suspicious circumstances surrounding his friend’s ‘suicide.’ Certainly all those elements are enough to keep even the most demanding mainstream reader turning pages.

Now let’s throw in the completely integrated sfnal story: in the town of Switchcreek (in Appalachia) when Paxton Martin was just adolescent, people started undergoing spontaneous mutations. Many, including his mother, didn’t survive the transition. Those that did settled into one of three separate genotypes: Alphas, Betas, and Charlies. Paxton was one of the few who escaped ‘unchanged.’ That gave him the option of wandering out into normal society when his father kicked him out; most of his childhood friends had to remain in Switchcreek. His previous lover, the ‘suicide,’ was a Beta, a species that is human sized but bald, red, and parthenogenic. His best friend is an Alpha–10 or 12 feet tall with a huge booming voice. His father became a Charlie–a grotesquely inflated version of a human. As his father becomes one of the first cohort to grow old after the mutations, it is discovered that older male Charlies secrete a hallucinogenic drug that is effective on younger Charlies–and also on Paxton. Another reason for the town mayor to want to get Paxton’s dad under her control in the nursing home.

When the mutations happened, ten years before the story starts, they happened only in this town. They were quarantined, but it never spread to anywhere else. Eventually, although the cause was never discovered, the security was withdrawn and they were allowed to live their lives in peace (although still extensively studied). However during the course of the story it happens again, in a town in Central America. This brings the full force of the government and all its agencies back down on Switchcreek. Given the general Appalachian mistrust of government, this leads to a very tense situation. The town mayor must negotiate her path very delicately, if not always ethically. She tries to carve out a future for the town, even as Paxton is trying to work out his issues with the past and the present.

Five hundred words of plot summary for a 350-400 page book. That gives you some idea of the incredible density and richness that Daryl Gregory brings to this, his second novel. The sfnal elements beautifully complement and enhance the emotional core of the story. We’re not focused on Paxton’s POV at all times (for which I was grateful–Paxton is absolutely believable as a character, but he also tends toward the whiny and passive), so we get excellent portraits of his Alpha friend Deke, his father, his dead Beta lover Jo Lynn and her kids, and especially the dynamic town mayor Rhonda. It all hangs together, and if I think that the ending is probably a little optimistic (and the science a little hand-wavy), that’s hardly the worst sin in a piece of literature. So the short version is: if you like character-driven near-future sf with plenty of mystery, both world-building and crime, this is absolutely the book for you. It’s well written, packs a lot into its pages, and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

I have reservations though, mostly related to Gregory’s oeuvre as a whole rather than this one book. I first became acquainted with his writing through his amazing body of short fiction, many of which can be found in “Year’s Best” anthologies. In those works he often combines characterization and speculation about the limits of the human brain and neuroscience, how incredibly weird the human experience can be, and how human relationships are affected by this weirdness. My favorites along these lines are “Damascus,” “Dead Horse Point,” and “Second Person Present Tense.” Not coincidentally, these also all feature strong female characters.

Switch now to his first novel, Pandemonium which was rightly nominated for the World Fantasy Award and for which he won the Crawford award. In that book, demonic possession is real and a young man Del is suffering from the aftermath of having been possessed as a young boy. He’s never been successful or put down roots, and he goes back to his family to try to sort out his issues. Sound familiar? While also an excellent character portrait (and one to which I could strongly relate, see my previous review) neither Pandemonium nor Devil’s Alphabet quite play to the same strengths that I admired so much in Gregory’s short fiction. I’m especially sad that the awesome female characters in these books appear on the edges of the story instead of front and center. The Del/Paxton character (rootless and disaffected young man trying to resolve childhood issues) is a little too similar between the two books. Also, if the books are supposed to be set roughly in contemporary times, they’re the wrong generation. As far as I could tell, they were both supposed to be in their mid-twenties, which should make them Gen-Y (my birth year and younger). However, they felt like Gen-Xers (my siblings and many of my friends) in every way, including their lack of comfort with technology. Nitpicks aside though, I think I’m still waiting for the Daryl Gregory novel that takes one of his amazing women characters, either from the margins of his novels or the centers of his short stories, and make a story for her.

Full disclosure time! Obviously I’ve been reading Gregory’s stuff for quite a while. Just on the basis of his short fiction, his first novel rose to the top of my to-read pile. Since then we’ve met at various cons, and I consider him a friend. Heck, he was one of the first (and only) authors to ever buy me a drink! I’ve also enjoyed meeting his wife (a tenured professor of psychology, which explains a lot about his subject matter) and his son, with whom my husband totally bonded over the subject of fencing. So it’s no surprise that Devil’s Alphabet once again floated to the top of the stack and that I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s not without its flaws, but most of those come from what I’m hoping for from Gregory, not from failing as a novel on its own terms. On those terms, it is definitely successful.

About Karen Burnham (82 Articles)
Karen is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a sf/f reviewer and critic. She has worked on the Orion and Dream Chaser spacecraft and written for SFSignal, Strange Horizons, and Locus Magazine.

3 Comments on REVIEW: The Devil’s Alphabet by Daryl Gregory

  1. I’m especially sad that the awesome female characters in these books appear on the edges of the story instead of front and center.

    Do you mean as a protagonist?  Because, at least the way I read it, three of the more powerful characters in The Devil’s Alphabet are women – Aunt Rhoda, the top doctor and even Jo herself whose death pushed the story into happening.


  2. Yes, exactly. In much the same way that Pixar does some awesome female characters but they’re never the *main* character, I loved the female characters in “Devil’s Alphabet” much more than Paxton, the official protagonist.

  3. Fair enough:)

    I agree about Paxton, he is almost a non-character until the latter half of the novel.

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