Interview with Sunyi Dean (THE BOOK EATERS)

I had the opportunity to review Sunyi Dean’s The Book Eaters here earlier this month for its release from Tor Books, and the novel is now out in the UK from HarperVoyager. Tor and and Sunyi graciously agreed to an interview, and I’m excited to present her wonderful answers here! If you haven’t gotten The Book Eaters yet, you can check out my review at the link above to read more about Sunyi’s debut novel (including the official synopsis).

I also split this interview with my reviewing colleague over at Fantasy Book Critic, Shazzie, who interviewed Sunyi separately. You can read that coincident interview here.

Photo Credit: Richard Wilson of Richard Wilson Photography

The characters in The Book Eaters often do horrible things, but they don’t necessarily seem to be bad people. Rather, it seems as though circumstances and limitations seem to create the badness, for simple ease or dire survival. The vicar says something along these lines in the novel. Is this something fitting specifically for the novel, or would you view this as generally true for life?

It’s definitely a view I hold personally. People are complicated, life is a mess, and almost none of us are capable of being truly good all the time. The best we manage is good to some other humans. On the plus side, very few people are entirely and unapologetically bad.

One of the epigraphs appearing in The Book Eaters comes from George MacDonald’s The Day and the Night Girl (The Romance of Photogen and Nycteris). Nycteris also appears in your Twitter handle, is this all from a love of bats, MacDonald’s Victorian-era novel, or both?

Aww, that made me laugh! I do like bats, but not that much. “The History of Photogen and Nycteris” is probably my favorite all-time short-story (it’s only 16k words long, so I can’t quite claim it as a favorite novel.) He is a little obscure, but his work was enormously progressive for its time period, and he wrote one of the earliest true adult fantasy novels (Phantastes). He had a lasting impact on Tolkien, CS Lewis, and Wolfe, and also mentored the much-more-famous Lewis Carroll. It’s an astonishing literary legacy for an author who so few people have read today.

You’ve said that “This is not a novel I ever thought I’d write…” Books are also not ever for ‘everyone’. Is there are point where The Book Eaters surprised you by becoming something for you, connected to feeling a natural outcome of yourself?

If you’d told my teenage self that I’d one day have a debut novel about lesbian (book) vampires, I think she would have fainted! Epic fantasy was my childhood love, and later I obsessed over social scifi (e.g., Philip K Dick) in my twenties. I think I always assumed I’d write in one of those two genres.

The Book Eaters is rich in its physical setting of Northern England and the Scottish border. To what degree did real locations inspire the novel – or did the ideas and setting of the novel in your mind inspire you to explore the real locale more?

Both! Many of the locations are placed I’ve been to or lived in or otherwise visited. I like getting a feel for a place, and making it real for others. (Devon’s impression of Brighton is similar to my own feelings on it.) Some I visited for the book – notably Traquair House, which is a real manor in Scotland.

Did the editing of the novel prove more challenging for you than the initial writing? Were there changes that had to be made that really affected you?

I edit as I go, dipping back and forth as needed! But the book went through immense adn intensive edits after Tor picked it up. I did not mind any of Lindsey’s (my editor’s) notes on the story, and I felt like she taught me a lot. However, I did struggle with the title change. I understand why they wanted to change the title, but I’d gotten used to it being called Paperflesh.

You identify as a biracial autistic author who has lived in many spots around the world. What are some of the ways in which these aspects of your life influence your writing?

When you are mixed race, constantly moving country, and a different neurotype, being an outsider is consistently your experience. I tend to write stories with humanoid non-human protagonists, who do not fit in well or easily with humans, and The Book Eaters continued in that trend.

Where is your go-to environment for writing?

Anywhere! With small children and not much space, I learnt very quickly to not be picky about my writing conditions. Most common place is probably the kitchen table, with a laptop.

What sorts of stories do you still hunger for?

Strange, weird, liminal, surprising, subversive! I adored many of the books that came out during the New Weird wave of the 00s, and was a little sad that it seemed to have petered out a bit. Hopefully it comes back.

If I recall correctly, you had a Star Trek-related backdrop for your TorCon remote Q&A session. Is there a particular Star Trek series you’d love to write for, or a specific character?

I adore Star Trek but would be terribly unqualified to write for it! I did read some Trek novels when I was younger and liked the ones with Q in it, or any of his strange beings / race.

What would be the most delicious book you could think of to eat? Would you go for simple flavors, or crave genre mashups that combined contrasting ones?

I would try a very wide range of them, if that’s okay to say! I think poetry would probably be the most beautiful to eat, though.

Thanks again to Sunyi Dean for taking part in this interview, and to Sarah Reidy and to Giselle Gonzalez from Tor Books in helping make it possible! If you haven’t yet, please be sure to check out The Book Eaters, and be on the lookout for her upcoming short story “The Thief of Memory” on on 31st August.

Cover art by Su Blackwell; Design by Jamie Stafford-Hill


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.


I happen to have an extra copy of The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean from Tor Books.

I considered cutting it into strips to consume, but thought I’d run a giveaway instead to share this superb debut fantasy with someone else.


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. To them, spy novels are a peppery snack; romance novels are sweet and delicious. Eating a map can help them remember destinations, and children, when they misbehave, are forced to eat dry, musty pages from dictionaries.

Devon is part of The Family, an old and reclusive clan of book eaters. Her brothers grow up feasting on stories of valor and adventure, and Devon—like all other book eater women—is raised on a carefully curated diet of fairytales 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.

The Book Eaters is a darkly sweet pastry of a book about family, betrayal, and the lengths we go to for the ones we love. A delicious modern fairy tale.

Christopher Buehlman

My review of the novel will be coming here soon. But in the meantime, please enter to win this copy.

Here’s what you have to do to enter:

  • Have a US mailing address
  • Follow this blog
  • Have a Twitter account and reply to my Tweet of the giveaway here.

The winner will be chosen randomly from the Tweet replies and will be contacted via Twitter.

Ends Friday 5th August at 8PM ET