Sci-Fi Novels

Review: Devolution, by Max Brooks

Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre

By Max Brooks, Published by Del Rey, June 2020

Devolution is only my second foray into cryptid fiction. It’s not a sub-genre I’ve been drawn to, purely because I tend more toward space operas and fast-paced novels populated by ass-kicking heroines. Enter Sasquatch and a thrilling tale of awe and horrors. It’s a slow-burn of a novel that masterfully builds a tougher-than-nails heroine through well-executed diary entries. Brooks goes beyond the always fascinating details of larger-than-life cryptids to center on our protagonist. What starts as a therapeutic writing exercise morphs into a terrifying account of the sheer brutality of a war against untamed beasts. The words aren’t perfectly polished, and that stream-of-consciousness effect makes this ‘found footage’ style all the more enjoyable.

Writing Lessons Learned

  • Diary entries can be thrilling if done right. I’ve read many an epistolary novel in my day and they often end up tired and frustrating by the end. You can only read a person’s carefully formed thoughts for so long. Brooks moves beyond this approach, using the diary as a therapeutic outlet for the protagonist’s emotions. This style gives the book a raw edge that especially plays through in the incredibly intense final quarter.
  • Effective horror can slowly build from a place of calm until it overwhelms the reader. I found myself getting frustrated in the first third of the novel. The protagonist talks a lot about the idyllic landscape and this new life away from what she felt was a deeply flawed existence. It was solid writing, but not the exciting explosive action I was expecting. As I kept reading, the signs started to appear slowly, building the anticipation of what I knew was coming. By the time the Sasquatch explode into the village, you’re so excited that your mind enters the frenzied state of the protagonist. It’s a brilliant way to get the reader to have the same experience as the narrator.
  • Mixed-media is essential to a diary-driven novel. I think this may be where old-school epistolary novels go wrong. By inserting frequent interview transcripts of a park ranger and the protagonist’s brother, we get outside perspectives that add additional information to the story. Brooks is able to guide us into a specific mindset before we read the in-the-moment words of his protagonist.
  • How to use hyper-violence in an effective way. The horror of the novel didn’t reside in the fact that Sasquatch was real and it had arrived in town. It started the moment the first witnessed attack occurred. Prior to the closeup attacks, the villagers still had unfounded beliefs that they’d be able to survive, that the Sasquatch were friendly and just passing through. The moment we see the first brutal attack against an oblivious pair of neighbors, all bets are off and it shifts from wonder to horror. Brooks goes further by lending that air of violence to the protagonist, shifting the villainous air from beast to human. That shift is what makes the protagonist so incredible by the end.

Plot Structure Analysis

I was most impressed by how slowly Brooks built the novel into the horror it would eventually become. Devolution starts with passages that describe the beautiful rural setting of woodsy Washington, complete with an eco-friendly town that’s cut off from the bustle of the city. When conflicts start to arise, they’re small and carefully managed. The fear isn’t sudden and intense, but slow-brewing until the characters realize there’s no real escape from their predicament. As we get closer to the climax, these conflicts start to intensify until you’re intent on turning the pages as quickly as possible. The final showdown is straight out of an action movie, complete with booby traps, explosions, and animalistic attacks that make the humans into the real predators. The falling action reveals an incomplete ending that only adds to the mystery of the novel and the image of a Hannah-like character stalking Sasquatch in the woods, becoming their version of a nightmarish boogeywoman. 

There were a number of story elements in play that were able to craft this horror-meets-science fiction tale:

  1. The every-present wonder Americans have of Sasquatch and the mystery shrouding its existence.
  2. The personal growth journey of a woman trying to find a new life, only to be thrust into a horror show.
  3. A tough-as-nails neighbor who is integral to the protagonist’s growth from timidity to a badass warrior who takes down a horde of terrifying beasts.
  4. Two historical elements woven into the narrative, namely the history of sasquatch and a timeline of the fictional events of the Mount Rainier eruption.

Character Analysis

Our protagonist, Kate, begins the novel as one person and exits as an entirely different being. We get to watch her quick ascent from an anxious, unsure person into the alpha of the human pack who refuses to back down in the face of the Sasquatch horde. To compare her on the first and final page of her diary is to see two people who have very little in common. It’s exciting to watch a character morph into her surroundings, especially when she is able to rise to the conflicts at hand and emerge as the hero she knew she could become. Her journey was the most impressive element of the novel.

My favorite character was Mostar, the tough neighbor who immediately ingratiates herself with Kate and her often oblivious husband. Through her strength and determination to live at all costs, she gives Kate and her husband the support they need to grow into the warriors they need to be. Her tragic past influences her every action but doesn’t define her. Through a story much later in the novel, we see her ability to make beauty out of horror, a quality that creates a stark juxtaposition beside her no-nonsense persona. She’s quite the conundrum, and the perfect addition to this tale of survival and wits. 

NOTE: I was provided a free copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest, unbiased review.

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