The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean

December 31, 2022 at 12:29 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

From the outside, Devon looks like an ordinary young woman, but she has a secret. Several secrets, actually, but let’s start with the fact she has hidden fangs and superhuman agility and strength. “Right,” you say, “she’s a vampire.” Ah, but she doesn’t use those fangs to suck blood, she eats books. “Okay, okay, she’s a book-vampire,” you say. “That’s…a little precious, but it’s still basically a vampire thing, surely.”

I don’t think it’s a vampire thing. Obviously the author, Sunyi Dean, is leveraging that imagery, but the themes of the story are very different from those of most vampire stories. This might seem like critical navel-gazing stuff but I put it up front because if you’re like me, just living through the Twilight era of books and movies has left you skeptical that anyone has anything to say about vampires that you haven’t seen plenty of times before.

Devon, as we see in flashback chapters interleaved with the main story, grew up in the small, secret society of British book eaters. Women are born only rarely among book eaters, which makes them very valuable. Too valuable, perhaps. “Marriages” are arranged by families as time-limited contracts: go to some other family, have a baby, then come back. Book eaters aren’t great at “passing” in human society so their culture resembles that of a reclusive religious cult that controls every facet of women’s lives.

This seems like the basis for a story in a genre that turns out to be much closer to what The Book Eaters is trying to do: dystopian YA. Devon needs to slowly learn there’s a wider world than her repressive family admits, realize their ways are unjust, and then find love and overthrow them! The bad previous generation is an interesting but not groundbreaking blend of the Harry Potter series’ wizarding world and Handmaid’s Tale. But this is just the flashback chapters. More than half the book is spent in the present narrative where Devon is not a young adult, she’s a woman who’s had two children. She’s already escaped from her oppressive family and is living as a fugitive while struggling to raise her son. If this was a typical YA book, the arranged marriage would have been the breaking point for Devon, but for her what turned out to be unbearable was being separated from her firstborn daughter. So when she had her second child, she took him and ran.

But not only is her son not a normal human, he’s not a normal book eater either. He was born with a somewhat rare condition: instead of eating books, he eats human minds. He must eat them or he’ll die, even though this means murdering a person. Making this weirder is that he takes on aspects of the victim’s identity each time he does it, so it’s debatable he’s even the same person he was when Devon went out on the run. In the culture Devon ran away from, men like her son are treated as dangerous but useful tools.

Here The Book Eaters‘ true colors come to fore: it’s a horror story. Devon loves her son and can’t bear to let him starve, but following her very noble maternal instinct, the instinct that made her break away from the evil society she was born in, means helping a monster–her son. It means becoming a monster herself.

The setting combines so many different influences and genres I doubt any reader can recognize them all. The idea of mind eaters clearly owes a debt to Gene Wolfe, both the alzabo of Book of the New Sun and the inhumi of Book of the Short Sun (turns out book eaters can’t write…). In a few delightful passages we learn that the book eaters have passed down a story through the generations for how they came to be the way they are, a science fiction story involving an alien probe and genetic engineering. A human character, hearing it, is dismissive. Book-vampires are one thing, but aliens? That’s ridiculous! 

But Devon’s feelings and choices are the center of the story: her love for her children, her guilt over what she must do to keep her son alive, and her anger that the book eater society made this necessary. I can’t recall reading a book where the main character has such an easy out. At any time, Devon can disappear into the surrounding human society. She can leave the United Kingdom for Ireland or America and her parochial family will never find her. But she’s trapped, not by any scheme of theirs but by the love she feels for her children. It’s a fascinating fantasy visualization of the two sides of parenting: love and obligation.

The plot is a well-executed but not really extraordinary series of investigations punctuated by action set pieces as Devon lives the life of a fugitive while navigating different book eater factions in pursuit of a substance that will allow her son to survive without harming humans. What makes this book stand out–it does stand out, it’s taken me a while to have time to finish this review but unlike most novels it remains clear in my memory–is the focus on the conflicted feelings of motherhood. Considering motherhood is such an important part of life, it’s curiously underexamined in science fiction and fantasy, genres which are a bit too focused on the teenage experience even when dealing with older characters and themes.

I really enjoyed The Book Eaters even though a lot of the genre material (horror elements, vampire-adjacent creatures) aren’t really my cup of tea, because its central, conflicted mother/son relationship was so compelling and thought-provoking. Book eaters experience a “taste” from a book based on its text; I’d call this one savory but with astringent notes that mean it won’t be to everyone’s taste. I’d still highly recommend The Book Eaters for any genre reader, because if you do like it, it’s a taste I don’t think you’ll get from many other books.


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