Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Devil's Alphabet

The Devils Alphabet, Daryl Gregory, 2009. Considered for Hugo nominee reading, not good enough to be a Hugo nominee.

And now for a less effective horror novel. Nor that Gregory's book is entirely horror--and indeed my biggest criticism of this piece was it's struggle to define itself. It has definite elements of the bio-thriller, body horror, murder mystery and full-on science fiction, but ultimately doesn't deliver effectively on any of these. The premise: a very strange virus arrives in a small town, killing many people and transforming most of the rest into one of three significantly mutated human variants. The protagonist is one of the few people left unchanged by the virus, as the book opens he returns to the infected town after a decade, hearing of the suspicious death of an old friend.

As a start, it's unsatisfying in its murder investigation aspects because the plot is haphazard, the resolution ultimately unconvincing, and because the protagonist seems to loose interest in finding out the truth for long stretches. The confused apathy of the main character is one of the persistent issues with this account, and partly why it manages to be so unexciting despite so many wild elements. This largely accounts for its failures as a real thriller. On body horror, the description of what happens with the virus and long-term results of this are effective at points, making for the novel's strongest and most distinctive scenes, but the narrative seems to have little sense of how to work with this. Instead, it settles eventually into science fiction: people aren't mutated in this one town because of magic or a weird condition but because of an empirically verified fact--a virus that jumped from a parallel universe, and does it again in another town off-screen in the course of the book. In part where the story falls flat is in failing to recognize how ridiculous this explanation is. In a similar commitment to genre the book looks at both the situation of mundanes isolating and fearing the transformed, as well as how town society alters with three different species variants. There's some success in this (for instance, the betas now reproduce without sex, and only females)which delivers some unusual ideas, but the descriptions feel more odd than creative, and don't connect to any grand insights. Above all, the premise and main developments in this book that everything depends on are so hard to suspend disbelief for. I'd say this is a result of the Space Whale Aesop nature of the work undermining its autonomy and real narrative power.

Beyond that, this is a work of only adequate characterization and prose with awkward pace, dipping its toes in a lot of genres as a substitute for doing anything truly effective with any of them. Distinctly underwhelming.

Similar to and better than: Seanan McGuire's Rosemary and Rue

Similar to and worse than: Robert Reed's Black Milk

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