Review: The Devil’s Alphabet, Daryl Gregory

As mentioned in this space a few weeks ago, I was more excited by the first couple of chapters of Pandemonium than I have been by the first few chapters of any book I’ve read in a while. Naturally, I was excited to check out more of Gregory’s work. Like Pandemonium, The Devil’s Alphabet drew me in with its premise, but didn’t quite succeed in bringing the plot home.

Okay. Here’s the premise. Bear with me for a bit. When Paxton was a kid, his town was hit with what’s now known as Transcription Divergence Syndrome, which killed some of the inhabitants, left others (including Paxton) untouched, and entirely rewrote the biology of the rest. Paxton’s close childhood friend, Deke, is an argo, with enormously lengthened bones; the friend whose funeral Paxton returns for at the start of the book, Jo Lynn, became a beta, a bald parthenogenetic species; and his father, the one-time hellfire preacher to the town, is a charlie, grotesquely fat and evidently capable of producing a hallucinogenic substance the town’s mayor calls the vintage. Everyone who remains in the town of Switchcreek belongs to one of these three strange species, or clades.

My impression of Daryl Gregory so far is that he is all about logistics. He’s good with the particular, often creepy, detail. Here’s one for each clade:

  • Deke gets stopped by the cops incredibly often, even when he’s not doing anything. It’s just because argos are huge, and you can tell from the road that a huge scary guy is in the car. Cops don’t care for it, and they make up reasons to stop Deke when he’s driving.
  • Someone says that “loving mother” is the highest–and basically the only–compliment that the (hyper-fertile) betas give.
  • “Blisters erupted over the skin of [the aging charlie’s] belly: tiny pimples; white-capped pebbles; glossy, egg-sized sacs. The largest pouches wept pink-tinged serum.”

Yeah, that last one happens. If you can believe it, it only gets ickier from there. As in Pandemonium, Daryl Gregory doesn’t shy away from body horror. The blisters on Paxton’s father’s stomach produce the vintage, and Paxton immediately becomes–I’m legit shuddering as I write this–addicted to it. If you can think of a way for that to get any grosser, by all means share it in the comments.

The problem with the first half of The Devil’s Alphabet is Paxton. He’s not enough of an outsider to Switchcreek to be a good surrogate pair of eyes for the reader, and what he wants is too poorly defined to make me want it for him. Also, his being addicted to a substance that oozes out of blisters on his father’s body is just too yucky.

The real meat of the story–to me–is the mayor, a charlie whom Paxton calls Aunt Rhonda. She’s the Mags Bennett of Switchcreek, savvy and ruthless, but her commitment to the financial and physical security of Switchcreek and its people is obvious. Halfway through the book, TDS strikes a town in Ecuador; the urgency of finding out the risk factors and causes of TDS returns to Switchcreek; and for the first time, the story had real stakes. When Rhonda gets in a room with the researcher who’s doing the most research into TDS, and they start talking about what they can do to protect their town from legal and medical intrusion, that’s when I started to feel the same excitement I felt when I was reading Pandemonium.

Which, yes. That is a long time to wait for the story to get good.

“I don’t believe this,” the reverend said. “That all this could happen by chance.”


The doctor bristled. “I’m not going to argue with you about whether this is an act of God.”


“That’s exactly what you’re doing,” the reverend said.


Rhonda rapped the table with the underside of one of her rings. “Ladies. It doesn’t matter whether God did it, or a virus, or quantum Santa Claus.”


“Of course it matters!” the reverend exclaimed.


“Elsa, hear me out. It doesn’t matter what we think, it only matters what the government thinks, and what the public thinks. Because that’s what’s going to decide if they quarantine us again.” She looked around the table. “You saw what I saw. Doctor, your friend Preisswerk bailed out when he was asked about the quarantine. Obviously they’ve talked about it. And if public opinion turns, then sooner or later they’ll have to isolate us. That’s what I’d do in their shoes.”


The reverend made a disgusted noise. “Of course you would.”


“Yes I would. Elsa, the only reason they dropped the quarantine last time is because it stopped spreading, and because the babies hadn’t started arriving. Now it’s started again, and they know those people will start breeding too. We’re not disease victims anymore, we’re a race–three races–and from another universe, of all things.”

What is good sci-fi about, my friends? VALUES. Why else would I like it so much? And would I watch a show about Rhonda arguing about values and ferociously bending Switchcreek and the American government to her will? I sure damn would.

I wouldn’t watch is a show about Paxton. Paxton is boring. When the story shifted back to Paxton, I lost interest and just missed Rhonda. I didn’t care about what happened to Jo–Paxton didn’t care enough to make me care–and I cared absolutely zero about whether Paxton was going to break free of his addiction to the vintage. The book broke into awesomeness now and then (whenever it ditched Paxton for someone else’s viewpoint), but overall it was kind of disappointing.

HOWEVER. My feelings of excitement about Daryl Gregory as an author are unchanged. I thought Pandemonium was great, I thought The Devil‘s Alphabet had a lot of potential to be great, and I am on board to read anything Daryl Gregory wants to write for the foreseeable future.

Cover report: Meh. The cover’s the same in Britain and America, and I could live without it.

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