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The Devil's Alphabet
Daryl Gregory
Del Rey, 389 pages

The Devil's Alphabet
Daryl Gregory
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.

Daryl Gregory Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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Daryl Gregory has produced some of the most exciting new short SF (and occasional fantasy) in recent years. His first novel, Pandemonium, appeared in 2008, and The Devil's Alphabet came out in 2009. Gregory's stories cover a wide variety of subjects, but perhaps a quorum concern biological speculation of various sorts. And so with The Devil's Alphabet.

The book opens with Paxton Martin returning to his East Tennessee hometown, Switchcreek, after over a decade in Chicago. Pax, or PK (for Preacher's Kid), has been working at various restaurants, but it's clear his life is going nowhere. He's in suspension because of the events that made Switchcreek famous when he was fourteen. A mysterious disease called Transcription Divergence Syndrome struck most of the residents of the town. Many died, and most of the rest were altered into three clades. One group became argos, very tall, grey skinned, apparently sterile. Another became betas, hairless and reddish. Beta women bear children without sex, apparently clones. The third clade is charlies, who become grossly fat, and whose older men secrete a substance, the "vintage," that is prized for its drug-like properties, which include aphrodisiac effects. Finally, a few residents of Switchcreek escaped TDS, and are called "skips." Pax is one of these. He left Switchcreek partly because of that, and partly because of his preacher father's disapproval of his relations with his two best friends.

It is the suspicious death of one of these friends, Jo Lynn, that has brought him back. Jo Lynn had become a beta, a leader of her clade, and, we soon learn, she had become controversial in that community because of her advocacy of abortion of the pregnancies that began happening to beta girls at puberty. Pax's other best friend, Deke, became an argo, and he is also a leader of his clade, acting as a sort of unofficial police chief and, in his personal life, striving to overcome the sterility that inflicts argos. Pax's link to the charlie clade is his father, and eventually a woman called "Aunt Rhonda," his father's secretary at his church, who became Mayor of Switchcreek after the crisis.

Pax's time in Switchcreek is dominated by two aspects. He suspects that Jo Lynn's death was not suicide, as officially reported, and he engages in some rather diffident investigation, involving in part an invading journalist who was interested in Jo Lynn because he suspected she was the person behind a prominent blogger who speculated on the causes of TDS. The second concern for Pax is his father, aging but stubborn. His relationship with his father is complicated by the "vintage": somehow Pax's presence causes his father to produce it more readily, which intrigues both Aunt Rhonda (who seems to be involved in some form of trafficking of the "vintage"), and Pax, who accidentally becomes addicted.

Behind all this is the question: what is TDS? What causes it? Inevitably, that is of considerable interest to an SF reader -- this one certainly included. And this is where the novel fails to satisfy. Gregory posits a couple of explanations, but none really struck me as all that interesting. And in the end, he leaves that question open. The mystery of Jo Lynn's death is resolved in a fair and interesting, and rather wrenching, manner. Pax's relationship with his father is explored with honesty and, if not resolved, one can say it's treated believably. There is also considerable business about the political situation in Switchcreek: Aunt Rhonda's manipulations which can be considered borderline criminal but usually, or perhaps marginally, in the interest of the town's residents; and Deke's concerns with the argo fertility problem. These too are handled well enough.

In the end, I found the book worth reading, but underwhelming. The description of small town life in Tennessee struck me as spot on. The characters are quite believable, depicted with real clarity and honesty. The prose is quite fine -- not showy, nor particularly special, but very smoothly executed. The problems I had were with the plot, which is OK but not all that absorbing, and not really sufficient in itself for a novel of this length; but more importantly the SFnal content, which is teasing but unresolved. It's nice work -- I'm happy to have read it -- but in the context of Gregory's career, and in the context of the best SF novels of this time, it's a mild disappointment.

Copyright © 2010 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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