The Devil’s Alphabet
Paxton Abel Martin is returning home. Fifteen years earlier, he
left everything behind believing that was the last he would ever
see of Switchcreek, Tennessee --- and he was fine with that. Now,
the death of a childhood friend, Jo Lynn, is pulling him back to a
place he has done his best to forget.
When Pax was a teenager, Switchcreek residents were infected
with a strange disease. The people who survived began transforming.
The disease, known as Transcription Divergence Syndrome (TDS),
created three new branches of humans --- argos, giant-like and gray
skinned; betas, hairless and wine-colored; and charlies, intensely
obese individuals. Pax is what is known as a skip, someone
unaffected by TDS and who remains human with no discernible change
to his DNA.
Those close to Pax were changed dramatically: his mother
succumbed to the disease; his father, the town’s preacher,
became a charlie; and his best friends, Deke and Jo Lynn, were
transformed into an argo and a beta, respectively. Not
understanding anything about their new bodies or the disease, the
town’s residents are left to figure out on their own what the
transformations mean. When Jo Lynn becomes pregnant, Pax is forced
to leave town by his father, not understanding that betas are
capable of self-fertilization. He never stopped thinking of her or
the child, and it is her death that brings him back to
This is not the same town he left all those years ago. His
father, one of the original charlies, is now producing an addictive
chemical called vintage that no one seems to understand, but is
very much in demand. Pax soon finds out the cost of the vintage to
the town’s mayor, Rhonda, and the locals. Suddenly, for a man
who hasn’t spoken to his father in over a decade, Pax becomes
very protective of him.
Pax tries his best to comprehend what happened to Jo Lynn and
come to some understanding of her and her death. No one wants to
talk about her supposed suicide and what may have led to it. He
becomes suspicious of Rhonda and what she’s planning, and
everyone in Switchcreek is guarded in their opinions of her. As a
charlie, she’s formidable, and though the female charlies are
smaller in comparison, she’s still a force of nature that no
resident wants to anger.
When a new outbreak in South America threatens the residents of
Switchcreek with another government quarantine, Pax finally comes
to terms with his new life and what he must do to protect his
family and friends.
I have to admit that I didn’t like the Pax character very
much. He didn’t ask questions, had a curiosity level that
bordered on zero, and does his best to remain aloof and unforgiving
the entire time he’s home. He constantly looks for a moment
to leave but couldn’t muster the courage to actually get in
the car and go. He doesn’t have a great life to return to,
but spending his time feeling left out also doesn’t appeal.
You begin to wonder why he’s in Switchcreek and if he cared
for his friends and family at all. In the end, he does come around,
and it did make me feel a bit more sympathetic towards him.
Daryl Gregory has an engaging writing style, and while I
didn’t care much for Pax, he infused the book with enough
interesting turns to keep me reading. I found myself wanting to
know more about the residents, what happened to them, and why they
changed. The explanations he offers are intriguing and somewhat off
the wall, but we’re talking about people who have become a
new strain of humanity, so in the end it was not all that
I usually stay away from dystopian-type books, and, although I
was put off by a few actions of the main character here, I did
enjoy the way Gregory portrayed the residents of Switchcreek and
what they were doing to create their own world --- separate yet
still within the confines of the world we know.
Reviewed by Amy Gwiazdowski on December 29, 2010