The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Contemporary Fantasy, Horror
Pages: 304 pages (Hardcover Edition)
Published: 2nd August 2022 Tor Books (US), 18th Aug 2022 HarperVoyager (UK)
The Book Eaters is a feast of a story, with an aperitif of supernatural mystery, an amuse-bouche of family politics, three courses of contemporary Gothic horror, a vintage bottle of vengeance and a well-earned finale where diners get their just desserts.
Devon is a book eater, part of a race of supernatural entities that consumes tomes while absorbing the knowledge they contain. Devon is raising her five-year-old son Cai, who is not a book eater, but a mind-eater: he must sustain himself by feeding on the brains of others. This process is more vampiric than zombie: the feedings imprint the victims’ personalities upon Cai, so this five-year-old must contend with multiple identities constantly fighting for control of his mind.
Female book eaters are rare, so Devon’s Family—and the other Families of book eaters across modern day United Kingdom—arrange temporary marriages between Houses for procreative purposes. Eater women are used as little more than birthing cows before being forcibly separated from their children and moved onto the next marriage. It’s a patriarchal society full of empty promises and it’s horrifying.
The narrative structure of the book divides its time between Devon’s past, alternating chapters with present day Devon and Cai on the run. Dean is a brilliant world-builder, farming out just enough bits of information along the way to help fill in the gaps of Devon’s early years while helping the reader understand her motivation and goals in the present timeline. Not all is as it seems.
Everyone is a monster in this book, and they are all terrifying. Flashes of Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale rears its ugly head as Devon’s desperation becomes agonizing and palpable. One of my favorite themes of the story is how painful love can be, and this is a driver of so many of Devon’s major life choices, which sometimes lead to ruin. But throughout it all, there is a sliver of hope for a way out. All the years of terror and loneliness and desperation might lead to freedom and companionship with a side order of vengeance if her wild plans could somehow fall into place…
The Book Eaters is one of my top reads of the year. It is atmospheric, it is brutal, it is exciting and emotional, and I planned my evenings around it. It tackles themes of identity, parenthood, the dark side of love, the importance of hope and sacrifice, and what it means to grow up different. It resonated hard with me. Highly recommended.