Tuesday, 17 November 2009

‘The Devil’s Alphabet’ – Daryl Gregory (Del Rey)

Every so often a book will just come out of nowhere and blow you away. I’m not talking about books by your favourite author either (although they’re obviously very cool). I’m talking about a book that you wouldn’t normally consider picking up at all (by an author that you’ve never heard of). That’s what happened to me in June last year when I read Daryl Gregory’s ‘Pandemonium’. I could go on at length about how great I thought it was but it would be quicker just to point you at the review over here instead.
When I realised that Gregory had another book on the way I knew that I would have to check it out. However, this feeling was tempered by the nagging doubt as to whether ‘The Devil’s Alphabet’ would live up to what Gregory accomplished with ‘Pandemonium’. Of course, there was only one way to find out and I duly took the plunge!
Having finished ‘The Devil’s Alphabet’, I have to say that while it didn’t quite match up to ‘Pandemonium’ but it’s still worth a look...

Transcription Divergence Syndrome (TDS). No-one knows how it happens but the results are only too plain to see in the eastern Tennessee town of Switchcreek. Fifteen years ago TDS struck Switchcreek; killing a third of the population and mutating the rest into giant grey skinned ‘Argos’, hairless seal like ‘Betas’ or the grotesquely obese ‘Charlies’. Only a few people escaped these changes, Paxton Martin was one of these people and his father (a Charlie) shipped him out of Switchcreek as soon as possible. Now one of Paxton’s childhood friends is dead and he has returned to Switchcreek for the first time in fifteen years...
On the outside, life in Switchcreek is the same as it was when Paxton was there last. Look beneath the surface though and Switchcreek is a town full of secrets; some may answer why Paxton’s friend died, some may influence the future of humanity itself...

I know I mentioned it before, in another review, but sometimes things don’t have to happen for a reason. They just happen and it’s up to people to adapt as best they can to their new circumstances. This is the approach that Daryl Gregory takes in ‘The Devil’s Alphabet’ and although I’m normally into books like this I had mixed feelings about its effectiveness this time round.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the concept and Gregory does a lot of good things with it, raising interesting questions along the way. While people’s lives have irrevocably changed, they are still human and deal with their resulting problems in a very human way (even the Betas although you wouldn’t think so at first). Sometimes you have to really stir up the weirdness to place greater emphasis on the underlying humanity and Gregory does this with style. Twelve foot tall Argos who cannot have children, seal like Betas who cannot stop getting pregnant... Gregory really brings out the way that people are suffering through this approach and this makes for some really touching moments (Deke and his wife spring to mind pretty much straight away).

These unexplained mutations are also a great means of kicking off a plot full of secrets and devious behaviour from the townspeople. Everyone has something to hide, even if they don’t realise it, and this makes for a plot full of twists and turns that isn’t afraid to send you down blind alleys when you’re least expecting it. There’s plenty to ponder here, both in terms of the plot itself and the questions it raises over the cause of TDS and its ramifications.

If you’re not going to give an explanation for an event then the danger is always that the resulting speculation can cross that line between ‘just enough to provoke discussion’ and ‘stifling the story itself’. There are moments in ‘The Devil’s Alphabet’ where pages of speculation and techno-babble (although I do like the sound of ‘Quantum Teleportation’...) slow things down to a crawl and make it really difficult to get back into the story itself.
This is also the case with the main character (Paxton) and that’s not really a good thing. To be fair, there’s not a lot for him to do but think things through; part of the whole point of him coming back to Switchcreek is to think things through and resolve certain issues in his life. This approach allows him time to develop as a character, and that’s cool, but it also slows things down when they could be moving along nicely. Time spent trying to get back into the story should be time spent in the story and it just doesn’t happen...

For me, what felt like the constant deliberation over TDS stopped ‘The Devil’s Alphabet’ being what it had the potential to become. Having said that though, there’s still a lot to recommend it with an interesting concept coupled plenty of plot to get your teeth into. I might have slight reservations next time but I would still check out further books from Daryl Gregory.

Eight and a Quarter out of Ten

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