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The Devil's Alphabet Paperback – November 24, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Gregory (Pandemonium) produces a quietly brilliant second novel. As a teen, Paxton Martin left the town of Switchcreek, Tenn., to escape a scandal and the retrovirus that afflicted many of the town's inhabitants. Many died hideously, and most survivors turned into strange creatures: towering argos, parthenogenic betas, enormously obese charlies. A decade later, Pax returns home to attend the funeral of a close friend who has committed suicide. Hoping to avoid his estranged father, Pax plans to leave immediately after the funeral, but he soon finds himself caught up in both the complexities of his old life and the deep quantum weirdness that Switchcreek has become. A wide variety of believable characters, a well-developed sense of place and some fascinating scientific speculation will earn this understated novel an appreciative audience among fans of literary SF. (Dec.)
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About the Author
Daryl Gregory's first novel, Pandemonium, was published in 2008 and won the 2009 Crawford Award, given each year by critics and scholars of the fantasy field to "an oustanding new fantasy writer whose first book was published the previous year." The book was also a finalist for The Shirley Jackson Award, the Locus Award, and the Mythopoeic Award for best fantasy adult novel. Gregory's short stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov's, several year's-best anthologies, and other fine venues. In 2005 Gregory recieved the Asimov's Readers' Award for the novelette "Second Person, Present Tense." He lives with his wife and two children in State College, Pennsylvania, where he writes both fiction and web code.
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Top Customer Reviews
I found something from Gregory himself in an interview he gave to Locus Magazine, and not surprisingly it describes the book well:
START QUOTE "I turned in my second novel, and it's totally unrelated to Pandemonium. Instead of a fantasy that feels like science fiction, it's a hard SF book that feels like fantasy. It's got a working title of Oh, You Pretty Things, a riff on the David Bowie song. It's about quantum evolution running wild in a tiny Tennessee mountain town. I'm calling it a Southern Gothic/science fiction/murder mystery." END QUOTE
I would've rather seen Gregory's suggested title and a less creepy-looking cover for the book, because I think that would have portrayed the book more accurately (plus, David Bowie). There is definitely enough suspense in the book (its biggest mystery is a whodunnit), but it isn't a fast-paced thriller, and it comes across much more charming than it does frightening. Yet its premise is a sufficiently weird SF/F one, and I mean that as a compliment. It's not a story with nice shades of grey.
The book reads like a rich literary work, especially, I think, toward the beginning. As the book goes along, I thought the pace picked up some and there is a bit less description. I thoroughly enjoyed the book from start to finish, though, and Gregory provides an excellent sense of place in the small southern town in the Tennessee mountains where the book takes place (cue: John Cougar Mellencamp music); I grew up some in the south, and I think Gregory did a rather good job describing it. Its characters are well-developed (Paxton, the main character, especially towards the second half of the book), and its premise remains interesting and oddly "believable." Oh, and I don't think I'll ever be able to get the image of Rhonda out of my head. If she starts haunting my dreams, I will have to track Daryl Gregory down and seek revenge.
What I liked most about it, though, was the sense of humor running through a good story. My favorite thing about Gregory's writing is his ability to throw in a hilarious line that fits completely within the context of the story he's writing; I laughed out loud about a dozen times. I also appreciated the realistic (and funny) references to modern Americana. One key character, for example, used to slick his hair down with Alberto VO5. That was in the second chapter, and at that point I knew it was going to be a fun ride.
Publisher's Weekly named it one of the top five SF/F books of 2009. Here's what they said about it, which I agree with:
START QUOTE "This subtle, eerie present-day horror novel mercilessly dissects and reassembles the classic narrative of a man returning to his smalltown birthplace, where the familiar folks have become strange creatures... Gregory (Pandemonium) produces a quietly brilliant second novel... A wide variety of believable characters, a well-developed sense of place and some fascinating scientific speculation will earn this understated novel an appreciative audience among fans of literary SF." END QUOTE
The "Stomping on Yeti" blog sums up something else that I wanted to say:
START QUOTE "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." END QUOTE
Most novels I try to read get thrown against the wall and abandoned before their half-way point. I read this one quickly, and happily, straight through. Its often southern-style pace was gentler than I expected from the cover and title, but its literary richness turned out to be a pleasant surprise and it was a quick page-turner for me nonetheless. I look forward to more stories and laughs from the author.
I was expecting a sci-fi/horror story, but I was surprised to discover that Daryl Gregory's second novel is really neither of these things. Sure, it's sci-fi in that the story takes place in an alternate reality with some pretty fantastic characters unlike anything I've ever encountered. But beneath all that, The Devil's Alphabet reads more like a gothic southern mystery akin to something Charlaine Harris might dream up.
The plot is too complicated and rich to sum up effectively in a short review, but here's it in a nutshell: Paxton Martin is the prodigal son returning to his hometown of Switchcreek, Tenn. to attend his childhood best friend's funeral. But Switchcreek is not your average small town --it's the site of the TDS crisis, an unexplained epidemic that swept through the community 15 years ago and left 30 percent of the town dead, and nearly everyone else changed in some way. His best friend, Deke is an "argo" -- the result of the first wave of the disease, which left people gray-skinned, sterile and more than 8-feet tall. His friend Jo, recently deceased, was turned into a beta -- the spontaneously-breeding, bald, burgundy-skinned victims of the second wave of the disorder. Paxton's father, Harlan -- a former pastor -- is a "charlie" -- the morbidly obese clade that emerged in the final stage of the Changes. Paxton himself is a rare "skip" - someone that made it through the TDS outbreak without any physical effects whatsoever.
Paxton quickly discovers that all is not right in his hometown. His father seems to be going insane, and needs care Paxton isn't sure he's able to provide. The former church secretary, Rhonda, is now Mayor Rhonda -- and has become a scheming, manipulative leader bent on preserving her town, but most importantly, her Charlie clade at any cost. Half the town is addicted to a strange drug called The Vintage. And all is not as it seems when it comes to Jo's apparent suicide -- or her 12-year-old beta twin daughters.
The plot is multi-layered and one of the most creative I've read in years -- I was drawn into the murder mystery as well as all the strange politics and relationships of the town. But the characters are also top-notch. Pax is a great narrator, because his outsider status, lack of life direction and self-understanding allows him to discover the mysteries of the town right along with readers.
All in all, don't judge a book by its cover. I feel like many of the people that would most enjoy The Devil's Alphabet might be unwilling to pick up the book just because of the unsettling cover art. This is a gothic murder mystery first. Yes, there are a few gross elements in the book, and some unconventional sexual content is inferred, but for the most part, it's a story that is one part science, one part science fiction and one part good, old-fashioned small town secrets.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Prior to the events of the story, the prior named "disease" (if it can even be called that) comes in waves, the first of which left...Read more