- Paperback: 400 pages
- Publisher: Del Rey; Original edition (November 24, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0345501179
- ISBN-13: 978-0345501172
- Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,312,547 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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
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 argos, giant 11-12 foot tall people with chalky colored flesh; the second produced betas, hairless, dark red skinned people who resemble seals; and the final changed people into immensely obese charlies.
The main character Paxton Martin is what they call a "skip," one of the few that both survived and remained unchanged by the virus. He left the town 13 or 14 years ago after the changes occurred and the quarantine was finally lifted, fleeing to Chicago to escape the legacy of a dead mother and charlie turned preacher father. The story opens with him returning to attend the funeral of his once best friend Jo Lynn Whitehall who turned beta, had twin girls, and purportedly committed suicide. Only expecting to remain through the funeral and aftermath before returning to Chicago and his pretty crappy life as a restaurant server, Pax is pulled into the mystery and intrigue of the town where the "clades" as they call themselves have in many ways become segregated, but still coexist and are held together by Aunt Rhonda, a charlie woman and self-proclaimed mayor.
The clades are as different from each other as they are from the rest of humanity, because TDS essentially rewrote their genetic code and DNA structuring. Argos, betas, and charlies are not technically human, and there is some speculation about the condition being an invader from an alternative universe. Betas can become spontaneously pregnant and always produce girls, often two. This is both a relief and despair to Pax when he realizes that neither he nor his (now argo) best friend Deke are the father of Jo's twin girls, since the three of them had a very strange/interesting sexual relationship after the changes.
Conversely argos for the most part appear to be sterile, which is discovered with Deke and Donna, his argo wife, who are going through expensive fertility treatments in order to prove this isn't so. As for charlies, once the men of that clade reach a certain age they start producing what's known as "vintage," a secretion from their skins that is in high demand from younger charlie males since it makes women sexually attracted to them, but it also makes Pax insanely empathetic and addicted to the secreted substance. That...was definitely one of the weirder almost incestuous parts of the story where the reverend's son is essentially getting high off of his bodily secretions. Kinda gross. And through all of this is Rhonda who has a home for the older charlie men where she collects the it. Gross.
The running plot of the story is Pax trying to figure out what really happened to Jo. Whether or not she actually committed suicide or if she was murdered. He's able to find her laptop, but it's password locked, and a good portion of the book is spent with her twin daughters trying to figure out a way into it.
Honestly, Pax sucked as main character. (Maybe his name was too "peaceful." Ah language puns...) He spent most of his time being strung out or getting beaten up by the huge younger charlie males for trying to sneak his father out of Rhonda's home. The vintage made him very empathetic, but it was hard to empathize with him. He was also not very intelligent, which I hate in main characters. Jo, who's dead throughout the entire story, is much more interesting.
What I did like is all of the issues this novel brings up. Because betas become pregnant asexually, there was a huge question of pro-choice vs. pro-life. This was ultimately what lead to Jo Lynn's demise. She was kicked out of the beta co-op for having an abortion and then getting a hysterectomy. There was a faction within there of girls wearing white scarves on their heads who believed themselves to be "purer" betas since they went through the change before puberty, had never had sex with a man, and were therefore having virgin births. Jo's daughters were the first of the second generation betas who look "more beta" than humans changed to beta, as if the invading cells grow stronger in later generations. They were revered because of this, but also hated because of what their mother did.
To the betas, an abortion was the worst possible thing anyone could do. It was as if their bodies were wired to produce children and nothing else and they wholeheartedly believed this like a cult. The issue of drug use and abuse was brought up, as well, but I feel more glossed over whereas the whole abortion thing was very heavily drilled. Paxton is little more than a junkie who almost gets abducted himself in a plot to kidnap his father (who produces the best vintage) by a couple of younger charlie males who are annoyed that Rhonda is reaping all of the profits from this.
I'm also not quite sure where the author falls on the pro-choice vs. pro-birth argument. Whether or not he was presenting the "white scarf" betas as a fanatical cult or as a beacon of righteousness, and since it's been years since I read the story, I can't remember all of the nuances. While I obviously do not and will not advocate suicide, I still find it poignantly fitting that Jo took her destiny and body into her own hands in choosing to have a hysterectomy. I can't say I wouldn't have done the same. It's a shame she was driven to that ultimate decision because her right to choose could not be accepted.
I really wish the novel had come to some resolution as to what really did cause the changes, deaths, or lack thereof in the people of Switchcreek. It felt like Gregory was building up to it. Each chapter/section was written in such a way to keep you reading more and more because you were waiting for that big reveal, but the novel falls flat in this. We never find out what caused TDS or why certain people changed, why certain people didn't, why certain people died. If the answer was supposed to remain obscure, I feel that the author could've done a better job of keeping it that way. Don't introduce all of these possibilities and then leave them to blow away in the wind. It feels like he presented a ton of ideas to get your mind racing, but then left you in top gear with nowhere to go. I would've even been satisfied with a rumor or a clue of resolution. Nothing big or conclusive. Many scientific mystery novels do such a thing. Throw something in that is possibly the answer, but that's never confirmed. I don't think Gregory wanted to commit to anything, but when you have such a marked change in human physiology, you need to make a decision. I was more than willing to accept the parallel universe idea; that honestly was fascinating. I think that would've worked very well for this story. Cells from one dimension competing with the others for survival taking the ultimate change/sacrifice and throwing themselves into another universe our universe and taking over human bodies. This novel could've drawn on an almost Cthulhu like mythos, while still keeping its steady, southern slow tempo. That would've been amazing to see such a thing from that lens of view.
I gave it three stars for its ability to hold my attention for the length. I'm not entirely disappointed because as I mentioned above the pro-life/pro-choice issue was very well done, but the main question of the novel was never resolved.
If I seem vague it's because I want to avoid any possible spoilers.
The only criticism I have of the book is that it leaves many things unanswered. Paxton himself is not a very likeable character, but this is not as important as I thought it would be at the start of the story. Instead I was bothered by the feeling that the novel should be a couple hundred pages longer with more explanations and expansions on its major themes. As such the ending was a bit lackluster.
Overall the story should be attractive to any sci-fi fans that enjoy quick reads with cool ideas. I'm just hoping for a sequel!
But it's the characters that really leave their mark. Character development is, if anything, even better than in Pandemonium. In Devil's Alphabet, they really come alive, each beautifully conceived and rendered. On the flip side, there are a lot of characters, and what follows is my single criticism: the plot at times is in danger of coming unravelled. In places, the storyline struggles to keep things together as the cast are put through their paces. It never does come unravelled, but at time it's like a car taking a curve too fast and you worry about the rear wheels breaking traction.
That aside, it's still a wonderful story, well told. I'm looking forward to the next one.