Nov 23, 2009

YetiReview: The Devil's Alphabet

21 Words or Less: Gregory manages to depict a town both strangely alien and profoundly human in a outstanding sophomore effort.

Rating: 5/5 stars

The Good: Phenomenal characterizations both in the protagonist and the secondary characters, Gregory manages to write difficult emotions with clarity and skill, the story manages to take a somewhat off-the-wall premise and grounds it firmly in reality, prose feels "literary" but reads effortlessly

The Bad: Not really bad persay but the story is more literary than the average genre title. If you are expecting a SF thriller, this isn't the book for you. Also, the cover could be better.

There are books that grab you from the first page, dragging you along at a relentless pace. Then there are books that slowly seduce you with strong characters and until you find yourself captivated and caring more than you would ever expect. Daryl Gregory's brilliant sophomore effort, The Devil's Alphabet, is definitely one of the latter. The Devil's Alphabet portrays Paxton Martin, an average twenty-something returning to his not-so-normal hometown of Switchcreek, TN to attend the funeral of one of his closest childhood friends. From the very first page, we accompany Pax as he reacquaints himself with his former neighbors. As Pax goes through the phases of awkwardness, reminiscence, responsibility, and finally belonging, Gregory develops a pair of brilliant characters: Paxton and the town itself.

Switchcreek, TN is not your normal small backwater town. It’s got the normal share of teen pregnancy, amateur drug market, and all the normal gossip and politicking but it also is the only town on Earth to undergo the Changes. The summer before Pax fled Switchcreek, the town was decimated by an epidemic of unknown origin, leaving two thirds of the population dead and the majority of the rest mutated into one of three different “clades.” The disease first created “argos”, veritable giants over twice as tall as a normal human, if they survived the painful procedure. The disease then mutated unexpectedly, creating a “Beta” strain and turning normal men and women into raspberry red, hairless versions of their old selves. The victims of this strain also happen to asexually reproduce at an alarming rate. Last came the Charlies, massively thick, powerful mutants who were discovered to produce hallucinogenic secretions as they got older. Then the diseases stopped and life returned to normal. Or at least as normal as life can be when your town is populated by gentle giants, parthenogenetic communes, and drug addicted men as wide as they are tall.

It’s a strange town and it’s no wonder Pax has such difficulty re-acclimating to the town he left behind. It’s also one extremely ambitious premise. Fortunately, Daryl Gregory proves up to the task. While the residents of Switchcreek are alien in appearance and genetic makeup they are deeply, deeply human at their core. Greed, hope, doubt, fear, lust, faith. Aside from the science fiction mutations, each and every citizen is multidimensional, flawed, and realistic. There are no antagonists in Switchcreek, only people trying to live their lives the best they can. It’s this realism that creates balance against the somewhat absurd premise. Scientifically, the disease most likely could not exist. Emotionally, the story resonates as well as any tale of “trying to go home again” that I’ve ever experienced.

It’s a testament to Gregory’s skill as a writer that he manages to write such a poignant story even discounting the fantastic elements. The Paxton who returns to Switchcreek is a twenty-something adult with no direction is his life. He smokes pot when he isn’t working a dead end job. Upon returning home, he mourns the loss of his former best friend and contemplates placing his mutant father into an assisted living facility. There are a lot of heavy issues in this book, issues that can often be agonizing to read. Angst is one of the hardest emotions to write without being whiny, and Gregory manages it expertly. His prose is fluid without being flowery, simple yet elegant. The pages turn easily and while the thoughts and actions are often dark and brooding, it’s hard to leave Switchcreek behind. Yet when there were no more pages to turn, I felt no qualms about how Gregory left things.

I wrote earlier this week that there is something intrinsically satisfying about finishing a well-written book. The Devil’s Alphabet is well written indeed. As was his also brilliant debut, Pandemonium. Looking at these two books together, it’s clear that Daryl Gregory is a world-class fantasist who is only just beginning an extremely promising career.

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