I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
In The Book Eaters, Devon has led a sheltered but pampered life in her family estate. She is one of the book eaters, beings who consume books as food. Being a girl, rare among her kind, she is considered important, though her options are limited—grow up, get married, and have more book eater children. She doesn’t know any other way, but when she gives birth to a rare type of eater, one who hungers for human minds instead of books, she has to reevaluate her life. She goes on the run with her son, navigating dangers and various groups who want to find her and use her. She hopes to keep her son safe, all the while grappling with the question: is he a monster?
This is a strange, dark story, and the concept really drew me in. I haven’t read anything like this before.
The magic is intriguing. There isn’t a real explanation given for why the eaters need to feast on books, though they do have certain beliefs in their culture about their origin and purpose. But I liked that there isn’t a universally agreed upon lore; it gives a sense of realism. The basic organization of their society—from the main Families, to the knights as enforcers of the rules, to the dragons as dangerous mind eater tools—was pretty well established, and the complexities are well fleshed out. It’s quite layered, but I wasn’t confused.
The roles of men and women in this society are also a major aspect of the plot. Devon, being a girl, is raised differently than her male counterparts. She is given different education and therefore different books to eat, so she grows up unaware of the lack of equality, and her lack of autonomy. Seeing her realize this and push against it over time is compelling and makes you root for her. Moreover, the role of mothers is incredibly restricted; mothers are not permitted to really be part of their children’s life, but Devon fights this too. Themes of choice and parenthood are significant in this story, and they are explored in an interesting way. Love is shown to be a fierce and protective driving force, especially when that love is felt for a child.
This is a pretty dark story, though, too. There is a good amount of violence, though nothing too terribly gory. But this is a book about certain beings who eat people’s minds, leaving them a living husk with no memory of personality—or just leaving them dead. When the mind eaters do this, they end up retaining some memories or traits from their victim, so they end up an amalgamation of all the people they consume. This makes Devon’s son Cai really interesting and layered, but also a little unsettling. It’s hard to call him a monster, though, as he has no other choice, and he’s technically just a little kid, but there’s still darkness around him. Devon is quite morally gray as well, having to make choices and do things that are usually considered terrible in order to protect Cai. They are both fascinating characters.
In the end, The Book Eaters is a grim but intriguing story with lots of cruelty, but also lots of love. The themes of generational trauma, or morality, and of defying prescribed gender roles are all well explored. The characters aren’t exactly loveable, but you understand them, and they make you think. The writing is quite good, with vivid settings and emotions. It’s a thought-provoking read that feels kind of like a dark fairy tale meant to be read on a rainy day.
Some content warnings: violence, including murder and not entirely consensual sex.
The Book Eaters is published today, August 2nd, 2022!