The Book Eaters
By Sunyi Dean
Tor Books — 2nd August 2022
ISBN: 9781250810182 — Hardcover — 304 pp.
Scattered across the planet, living on the edges of human settlement, are the remnants of a people brought to Earth long ago by a now departed alien Collector. Their purpose: to catalog the works and thoughts of humanity and await the Collector’s return. Their ancient origin and duty misted in myth, they remain uncertain if the Collector will ever return, and worry about the decrease in females born to continue their lines.
Most of their kind are Book Eaters. After weaning off milk, they consume books of all types, able to gain the knowledge of the tome through its consumption. Their brains unable to process language through the act of writing, this swallowing of already written text is their only means of cataloging the throughs of humanity. However, some among them are born without the capacity for nourishment through books. These rare births instead wean from milk into a rapacious thirst for minds. Such Mind Eaters are born with a long tongue that can be used to penetrate into a victim to suck a brain dry of thought and knowledge, leaving shells behind.
In their varied cultures across the Earth, some of the Book Eaters choose to destroy any Mind Eaters born among them, others allow them to prey upon humanity. Families in enclaves spread throughout the UK rely on giving their Mind Eaters a drug that one family developed tto allow them to consume books instead. However, it still does not reduce their hunger for brains. Such Mind Eaters are taken as Dragons to be trained and kept in check by Knights. The Knights are Book Eaters taken as children from among all the UK Families, forming an organization that historically only served to protect women transported between enclaves for arranged marriages that allow the Book Eater lines to continue.These politics suddenly change when a revolt for control of power occurs within the Family who holds the secret for producing the drug for Mind Eaters.
Devon is a young Book Eater from a Family that has settled the wilds of the Yorkshire moors. She’s now on the run from her Patriarch, and from the Family of her last husband, searching for the survivors of the revolt and try to secure some of the now unavailable drug from them. She desperately needs the drug because she has her five year old son Cai with her, a boy born a Mind Eater, for whom she now has been forced to find prey. In roughly alternating chapters, Sunyi Dean writes about the quest for freedom in Devon’s present – her acts of love to save her son – and the events of Devon’s past, from childhood, that brought her to being a pariah.
The Book Eaters is an inventive dark fantasy that dazzles with empowering themes of devotion and defiance. It’s also a story about the monstrous things that someone could find themselves doing for survival when circumstances and systems of oppression tighten in.
As a child, Devon has a devoted reverence for her Family, her patriarch, and their rules. Such naïveté leads to disenfranchised horror when Devon discovers just how little justice there is in the political system of her people, how powerless and exploited she will be no matter how closely she obeys, no matter how meekly subservient she acts. Faced with this realization, Devon chooses defiance in every way she can, and narrows the allegiance of her devotion to only herself, and her children – who are equally taken for exploitation by the Families.
Forced into marriages and bearing children who are taken from her, Devon defies and bears punishment, up until a possible route of freedom becomes open to her from an unlikely familial source from her past. Dean’s structure for The Book Eaters makes it a compelling read for discovery of how Devon ended up in the situation she is in at the novel’s start. And there are some lovely little twists and clever double-agent-type situations that enhance the fun of the plot and its action.
Well written secondary characters also put some extra accomplishment into the novel. Cai is a perfect mixture of endearing innocent childhood and creepy terror, at one moment himself (a typical five-year-old), and the next moment one of the minds he has eaten (e.g. an elderly pastor.) Dean also creates a cast of intriguing and varied villains, from those who harm through their cultural privilege to those who have been shaped by the Knights or those who have revolted against the establishment to only form a cult of power for themselves in its place. None are purely evil, or purely good. Despite its fantastic plot, The Book Eaters is a novel rooted in a moral realism where people (even if not human) are formed by their circumstances or experiences and pushed toward helpful or harmful actions.
Born into this type of world, Devon is striving to find another option where the system no longer necessitates monstrosity. Thankfully, she is not alone on this path. Dean has two wonderful characters to help aid her journey. One, Hester, is a survivor of the revolt in the Family responsible for the Mind Eater drug. Her story is a terrific parallel to Devon’s own journey, and she develops into a perfect romantic interest for Devon. Devon is also helped by the kind hearted, video-game loving, brother of one of her husbands. He’s also a notable character in terms of being asexual, which makes sense given how closely male sexuality is tied to oppression and power in the UK Book Eater society.
I’m definitely eager to reading more in the future by Dean. Her straight-forward prose makes for a breezy read, yet is still filled with rich atmospheric imagery. The well-paced plot and shifting back and forth between times works very well, with a seeming simplicity that masterfully hides the complex execution needed to go into such careful plotting.
But I’m also really hopeful to read more from this Book Eater universe. I’m not talking about a series per se, or even a continuation of Devon’s story, or Cai’s. It would also be fantastic to see other stories and other characters around the world or time periods, built from the novel’s premise. Either way, please give us more.
The Book Eaters is now out in North America from Tor Books, and Harper Voyager will be releasing it in the UK later this month. If I still haven’t convinced potential readers out there that this should go on your to read list, go check out this second opinion from Shazzie at Fantasy Book Critic. She points out some details I wholeheartedly agree with but didn’t get into here, such as Dean’s fun use of classic and modern fairy tale passages as context for each chapter.
If you live in the US, please check out the giveaway I’m doing for a copy of The Book Eaters. Finally, be on the lookout here for an interview with Sunyi Dean, coming soon.