Review: The Devil’s Alphabet
With THE DEVIL’S ALPHABET, Daryl Gregory does something really cool. He presents a book that has all the trappings of an Urban Fantasy, which hides what it truly is. A character study. This book tickled, in particular, Nick’s sociology fancy. Steve found it a little bit less exciting.
THE DEVIL’S ALPHABET is about Pax, a young man from Switchcreek, Tennessee, that returns to his hometown to attend a funeral of a former best friend, who’s death is shrouded in mystery. Switchcreek, before Pax had left, had been a victim of a bizarre “disease” that warped the DNA and bodies of it’s inhabitants. It turned regular people into the tall, muscular, slumping Argos, the short, fat, grey, Vintage producing Charlies, and the bald, self-propagating Betas. Some were left untouched, as Pax was, and some people were just killed by the transformation of their bodies. Very cool ideas are written on these pages.
The biggest problem with The Devil’s Alphabet, is that the way it is presented misleads the reader. It does this by making it seem like a Mystery, a Thriller, and an SF novel all with a touch of urban fantasy. So as a reader, we keep waiting for the moment when the story picks up and we can see the central plot. All books in the aforementioned genres follow that structure. However, there is no moment of “Oh OK, here we are. This is where it is going.” We kept waiting for that moment though, because of the presentation of the book.
It didn’t come, and it was only upon reflection of the book that we realized what it actually was.
It was also then that we realized the book’s brilliance. In SF/Fantasy we oftentimes–OK, almost always–see non-humans acting and interacting in a defining human fashion.
Yes, there are variations of behavior, but those are usually culturally based, such as elves and dwarves (we just threw-up a little). Just about every character in THE DEVIL’S ALPHABET is not (entirely) human, but are humanistic. This is where the genius of Daryl Gregory manifests itself. He has written a book, featuring very, very few actual humans, that tells us what makes us human. (That paragraph had a lot of “human” in it.)
Gregory keeps the setting small in a Tennessee town, but it has a magnificent feel to it. The devil is in the details (and apparently the alphabet, har har), and the small things that Gregory includes in his descriptions make us smile in appreciation of his talent. He will surreptitiously toss in a fun detail that, in this foreign landscape, is a nice reminder that his setting is/was a traditional Tennessee town. Mixing the strange with reminders of the familiar.
This is, again, where the book shines. With so many “unnatural”, and bizarre individuals, with such varied needs and problems etc., it is hard to imagine that any of it could feel familiar and tangible. Gregory does it, and makes it seem easy. Slipping into the culture (or cultures) of Switchcreek was a cinch.
The book reads slower, and is much softer and much more thoughtful than the title and cover indicate. You quickly realize that how these people were changed, and why, isn’t really all that important. What is important is what they do in the fallout of The Changes. The book is pretty short, but you won’t blitz through it. It is thoughtful and engaging, while maintaining it’s entertainment value.
If you’re looking for something with a bang, breakneck speed, and breathless thrills, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a rich experience that engages and asks questions while it entertains, look no further. With this book Daryl Gregory has made our list of authors to watch.
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