The Book Eaters, by Sunyi Dean

Excerpt from the book jacket: Out on the Yorkshire moors lives a secret line of people for whom books are food, and who retain all of a book’s content after eating it… Devon is part of the Family, an old and reclusive clan of book eaters. Her brothers grew up feasting on stories of valor and adventure, and Devon – like all book eater women – was raised on a carefully curated diet of fairy tales and cautionary stories. But real life doesn’t always come with happy endings, as Devon learns when her son is born with a rare and darker kind of hunger – not for books, but for human minds.

TW: abuse in many varieties, violence/gore

That description is slightly misleading, mostly because Devon discovers misery long before her son is born. It also doesn’t do justice to the complexity of this story. The book eaters live in this world, but apart from it. They look like humans, but aren’t human. Not only is their biology vastly different for all it mimics humans, but they have strange physical constraints (example: they literally cannot write in any form), no knowledge of where their species came from (though there is religious-like lore), and their diet of books eventually breaks their minds down as they try to hold more and more information inside. For the most part, book eaters keep away from humans so as not to draw attention to their oddities and differences, but by the time this book begins, there’s been a political upheaval in their Family system, and Devon finds herself living out in the open world, her son in tow. And that makes for an incredibly intriguing story.

The Book Eaters is told in two parallel lines – the current timeline, and a series of flashback chapters that take Devon from her childhood self to her current-day predicaments. You see through her eyes the constraints on women in her society due to their rarity (and thus value), with all the strictures placed on them because they have value. Women are a commodity not to be wasted, so they must not be indulged, given choices, or allowed to make any but the most minor of decisions. When you value a thing too much, you put it in a box where it can’t get harmed. But women aren’t things, and when you put them in boxes, they break. The Families are okay with this as long as it’s the spirit and heart that are broken, making their women weak and pliable. As you can imagine, Devon is different than the norm.

I think my favorite thing about this book is how rich the world-building is without every aspect being explained. Why can book eaters not write? It’s a question never answered, one of many. The point is not to discover where these creatures came from, or what their purpose is, or whether their mythos is in any way rooted in truth. They exist, and like humans with their cultures and beliefs and limitations and problems, obstacles and barriers also exist. The unknown and the unknowable also exist. For me, that’s what makes the book so rich. It doesn’t feel like the author doesn’t know and therefore won’t tell you, nor does it feel like these random bits are in the story purely to move the plot along. They simply enhance the world, create potential complications, and bring a very alien creature into a space where they’re extremely relatable to the reader despite having a second set of bookteeth and ink that runs through their veins.

While this book appears to be standalone – I can’t find any evidence that it’s meant to be the first in a series – the end is a bit unsettling. The rest of this paragraph contains very, very mild spoilers not regarding events but the tone of the book, so I’m going to white it out. Highlight to read: The climax and tension build all the way through the last few pages, and even once you know where things are headed, there’s always uncertainty for the future. There are some really disturbing moments through the climax – disturbing in the implications of what they might mean for the characters going forward. It feels like there could be a whole host of questions that could be addressed in further volumes, or potentially a complete standalone with an ending that simply says life will never be even remotely simple for these creatures who are alien in our world. End mild spoilers.

I loved this book. Loved the writing, the fabric of the world, the use of queer characters without that being the focus of their stories or personalities, loved the complexities that inherently come with living in a world that isn’t meant for you. I loved the focus on family, both good and bad, and the discussion of the cost of love. There were definitely some unsettling and gruesome parts of the book (see trigger warnings), but it all felt appropriate in context and never glorified or overemphasized. Altogether, it was a rich book that I would guess will stick with me for a long time.

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About Amanda

Agender empty-nester filling my time with cats, books, fitness, and photography. She/they.
This entry was posted in 2023, Adult, Prose and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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