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Review: _The Devil's Alphabet_, by Daryl Gregory
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
Sad Sophomore Slump. I was really looking forward to Gregory's second novel, but it was quite disappointing.

Not to say that it was all bad. For instance, here's a really nice bit of writing from chapter two:
Deke said, "So what do you do for a living? You work in some restaurant?"

"Not some restaurant. The number three Mexican restaurant chain in Chicago, not counting Chi-Chi's and Taco Bell."

"Really."

"Really." Pax shrugged. "It's not a career or anything." No shit, he thought. There were two types of people in the restaurant biz: temps and lifers. The lifers were alcoholics with hefty pot habits. He'd always thought he was a temp--marking time until he figured out what he wanted to do with his life--until he woke up one morning with his fourth hangover of the week and realized he owed his dealer $300.

"You got a girlfriend up there? An ex-wife? I don't see a ring on your finger."

"I'm not exactly husband material," Pax said. "Or boyfriend material. Actually, I'm not even sure I'm material."
That's good wordsmithing: clever, but not pretentious; drawing a character portrait clearly and concisely. Pax really isn't good for much of anything. Sadly, he is the primary protagonist of this novel, despite not being protagonist material either.

Now, it can be acceptable to have an unsympathetic protagonist. But I personally insist on a protagonist who has some sort of goal. It needn't be a Grand Quest; it can be a simple goal, like 'survive', or a reactive goal, like 'stop the bad guy from *his* goals', or a purely emotional goal like 'reconcile with my estranged father'. But, y'know, *something*. Pax occasionally takes an action, but they always seem motivated by short-term chemical motives: either because he's high or he's in withdrawal. The story has some of the structure of a murder mystery, in that Pax discovers in the first chapter that the death of a close childhood friend may have been a murder -- yet he doesn't seem to care, and never actually *investigates* the crime in more than an occasional, desultory fashion. Heck, even the poster-boy for indecision, Hamlet, had more direction than that! Like Hamlet, Pax frequently thinks "I really ought to do X now", but never actually does it; unlike Hamlet, there doesn't seem to be any reason for his inaction other than weakness of character.

(There are two sub-protagonists whose viewpoints we sometimes see. They are less problematic than Pax, but their occasional presence is not enough to save the story from his fundamental lassitude.)

The other big mystery in the novel is the nature and cause of the odd setting. Switchcreek used to be a small, ordinary southern town. About a dozen years before the story opens, a 'disease' struck the inhabitants, though it didn't seem infectious in the ordinary way. A few were unaffected, many died, but most people underwent 'The Changes'. This left them mutated into one of three new species of humanity: Argos, giants twice as tall as normal people; Betas, red-skinned women who reproduce parthenogenically; and Charlies, who are immensely fat and have some intriguing biochemical quirks. Is this disease from another quantum universe? Are these new species actually from alternate evolutionary lines that never happened on our own world? What are the details of the new life-cycles that these folks must adapt to? How will society as a whole manage to integrate these people?

The novel also includes some of Gregory's favorite themes (as evidenced by his excellent shrt fiction): Is there such a thing as free will? Or even consciousness? To what degree are we simply fooled and and controlled by the chemical factories in our own brains?

All these are fascinating questions -- to the reader. But the protagonist doesn't seem to care. There are at least half a dozen other characters in this book whose point of view might have made for an interesting story, and actually explored some of these questions in detail. But our protagonist seems almost deliberately chosen to be the least invested, least interested character possible.

Avoiding major spoilers, I can say that by the end of the novel Pax is more the sort of character that I like to see in a protagonist. But his change in character seems to be, for want of a better word, unearned. It just 'happens', unconvincingly. Too little, too late.

As a final caveat, these complaints are arguably due more to my prejudices than actual faults. I had many of the same complaints about Michael Swanwick's _The Iron Dragon's Daughter_, and that didn't stop it from being well received and selling well enough to get a sequel. But if you happen to share those prejudices, then I must, regretfully, disrecommend this book.
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