When I was a kid, I was scared of Bigfoot-like, properly scared. I can’t remember how old I was when I first encountered a Bigfoot thing, but I can remember having seen some pseudo-documentary on Animal Planet, or something, and being ever so frightened of looking out my bedroom window and seeing Bigfoot staring back at me. It became a recurring nightmare of mine for a while until I eventually grew out of that fear and moved on. But there is something kind of frightening about a giant ape-like monster with borderline-human intelligence whose existence nobody can seem to prove or disprove. And that’s where Devolution, Max Brooks’ newest book comes in. Resting closer to something like Frankenstein than Brooks’ World War Z oral history riff, Devolution is another epistolary novel (or, as I jokingly refer to it, “found literature”) from Max Brooks. But unlike World War Z, I really enjoyed Devolution. It’s a gripping read, filled with a lot of tension, some immediately captivating characters, and a lot of genuine chills. (Mild spoilers follow!)
Devolution by Max Brooks
Offering a glorious back-to-nature experience with all the comforts of high-speed Internet, solar smart houses, and the assurance of being mere hours from Seattle by highway, Greenloop was indeed a paradise—until Mount Rainier erupted, leaving its residents truly cut off from the world, and utterly unprepared for the consequences. With no weapons and their food supplies dwindling, Greenloop’s residents slowly realized that they were in a fight for survival. And as the ash swirled and finally settled, they found themselves facing a specter none of them could have predicted—or even thought possible…
In these pages, Max Brooks brings to light the journals of resident Kate Holland, recovered from the town’s bloody wreckage, faithfully reproducing her words alongside his own investigations into the massacre that followed and the legendary beasts behind it. If what Kate saw in those days is real, then we must accept the impossible. We must accept that the creature known as Bigfoot walks among us—and that it is a beast of terrible strength and ferocity.
Devolution is a really strong book, almost surprisingly so. I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I started this book. I didn’t love World War Z – I thought it was a clever idea, but I felt like it lacked a lot of tension and the narrative felt really unfocused at times. But luckily, Devolution falls into none of those traps. Devolution has an identifiable main character – Kate Holland. It is her story we are reading, directly from a diary that was recovered sometime after the novel’s events – though the fictional “Max Brooks” has thrown in a few “external sources,” in the guise of interviews he’s conducted with other people and excerpts from some Bigfoot-related books, for context. Having the bulk of the novel come directly from Kate’s diary helps the narrative have focus. It’s basically just a regular first-person narrative, and that’s a much better way of telling a story that’s supposed to have a lot of tension. Here, the inclusion of the other material feels less like a distraction from the story and more of a contextual aid to help clarify some of the things Kate wouldn’t have known while writing down her experiences. Overall, I vastly preferred the format of this novel to Brooks’ other epistolary experiment.
Devolution also has a significantly more compelling plot that’s filled with some really interesting characters. It starts off like any number of disaster stories – it starts off with a quick setup before some disaster happens, in this case, the eruption of Mount Rainer, everything falls apart. I tend to have trouble getting through the setup in stories like this, but I didn’t have that problem at all here and I think that’s because of how well-crafted Devolution‘s characters are. Every single character in this novel feel fully formed and lived in. Each of them has a purpose to serve in the survival of the community and it’s an absolute joy getting to know them in those chapters before they’re put through the wringer of an eruption and a Bigfoot scare. All of the characters have something to adore and some fatal flaw. They feel like people you might know and it’s a great way of getting you to immediately care about them. Even though all the dialogue is technically whatever Kate remembers, it feels very natural and Brooks did a great job of ensuring each character has a unique and identifiable voice. It’s also really impressive just how well we get to know these characters, given the bulk of the narrative is told via Kate’s diary. It helps that Brooks made Kate the kind of person who’s incredibly observant and quick to judge those around her; these qualities give the novel a really easy way of establishing these characters’ personalities in a way that feels natural.
Equally natural is the way the plot unfolds. It all happens very quickly, but everything feels organic. The characters react in ways that absolutely make sense with the way they’ve been set up. Every time you start to worry that the action might be slowing down a bit, Brooks throws something else at you to keep you on your toes. I don’t want to go into too many specifics about the plot, but it’s a mixture of exactly what you’d expect it to but also immensely surprising, too. You know going into the book that there’s gonna be some kind of Bigfoot encounter, and you know going in pretty much how it’s going to end, but everything else is a delightful surprise. It’s also really compelling. Like in World War Z, Brooks clearly has something to say in Devolution. Underneath all of the Bigfoot stuff is a story about survival; a story about how we react in times of crisis. We saw similar themes in World War Z, but that was on a macro level. Here, it’s on a micro level, and it’s such a fascinating angle to take here. It’s so neat seeing how each of these characters reacts to this situation. It felt very dramatic and very real and I was captivated.
Overall, reading Devolution was just a lot of fun. I was hooked from page one and I stayed on that hook all the way until the novel’s final page. Everything about the narrative just clicked for me and I had such a great time with it. I powered through this novel in a way that I wasn’t expecting to. It very quickly became one of those books that I just couldn’t put down. I had to, because life beckons, but I constantly wanted to pick it up again and continue where I’d left off – and that’s an absolute gift for a story like that. I was scared for these characters and I was invested in them and how they’d get out of this situation. I just really adored how everything in Devolution unfolded.
My one complaint would probably be the book’s ending. I totally understand what Brooks was going for and in that context, it absolutely works. But I can’t help but feel like I’d have craved something a bit closer to a true resolution. I wouldn’t necessarily call the book’s ending a cliffhanger, but it’s certainly a very open one. And, to be fair, you know it’s going to be that way going into it because the novel’s introduction pretty much confirms this. But still, I always wish that books like this would pull a bait-and-switch and actually give me an ending even when they’ve promised not to. This isn’t a big fault of the book and it probably won’t bother anyone else. I was just so invested in Kate’s story that I wanted some kind of resolution that never fully came. And that’s okay. But it was a little disappointing for me.
All in all, I really loved Devolution. I wasn’t wild about World War Z and I thought Brooks’ Minecraft novel had a lot of exciting ideas that were never as fully realized as they could’ve been, and I’ve never fully read The Zombie Survival Guide, so, I wasn’t really sure how I’d feel about Devolution. Luckily, it’s a really solid read. I think Brooks found a much better balance between the commitment to the epistolary form and actually telling a compelling story that’s filled with tension and excitement. Even though I knew how the story ended, roughly, going into it, there was still a lot of room for surprises and excitement and the utilization of a first-person journal written amid the action was a great way of pulling the reader into Kate’s world and having us experience what she’s experiencing alongside her. I’d absolutely recommend Devolution. I think it’ll be immensely satisfying for fans of Brooks but it’s also really enjoyable for those who haven’t entirely loved his work. Plus, it’s just a really good, often scary Bigfoot story. And that’s always a lot of fun.
4.5 out of 5 wands.
Note: Thanks to NetGalley for providing a digital ARC in exchange for a fair review.