I was intrigued as soon as I read the description for The Book Eaters, Sunyi Dean’s debut novel. A young book eater woman undertakes a desperate, violent quest to find a way to preserve her young mind eater son from a fate decreed by the six book eater Families of Britain: death, or servitude as a “dragon,” the enforcers of the book eater militia known as the knights. That intrigue (further deepened by the excellent US cover, with art by paper and book artist Su Blackwell) was amply repaid just in the book’s first paragraph, one of the strongest I’ve read in recent SFF:
These days, Devon only bought three things from the shops: books, booze, and Sensitive Care skin cream. The books she ate, the booze kept her sane, and the lotion was for Cai, her son. He suffered occasionally from eczema, especially in winter. (Chapter 1)
Dean draws a shadowy world that exists alongside our own, populated with monsters of various kinds—the book eater patriarchs who control their descendants’ lives being more subtle than the everyday book eaters and mind eaters who populate Devon Fairweather’s life and her story. The book eaters’ stories say that they are the servants of the Collector, put on Earth to consume human knowledge and eventually return it, but these are just stories—so they’re like the Eternals, but without a way to contact the boss and with several distinct differences from normal humans that make blending in with them and modern society difficult: “remnants of an abandoned alien science project,” as one of the few human characters in the book puts it (Chapter 3). For starters, normal book eaters are dysgraphic, which means that by the late 1990s/early 2000s, when the book is set, traveling abroad is virtually impossible due to the need for documents that the book eaters can’t easily acquire or fake. Mind eaters do not have dysgraphia, but their insatiable need to consume the consciousness of others means that they aren’t trusted to use that ability to help. Even with the drug known as Redemption, produced solely and secretly by the book eater clan of Ravenscar, they’re only allowed to be dragons.
Devon opens the book having set herself against all that: we meet her luring a vicar back to the apartment she shares with her young son so that Cai can consume the unsuspecting human’s mind. Disturbingly, the minds that Cai consumes are then integrated into his personality, which perhaps explains Devon’s need to ask the victims she procures for him “Are you a good person?” Slowly, we learn that she has violently separated from the clan of Cai’s birth and is trying to make contacts who can connect her with what remains of the Ravenscars, who went through some kind of internal schism some months before and have since stopped producing the precious Redemption drug.
Book eater women are uncommon, and we learn through Devon’s past that they are carefully controlled: as each can usually bear two children at most, they are passed between clans in “marriages” that ensure that a new generation can be born—but they have no choice in the matter of their marriages, and no choice in the matter of being forced to leave their children behind after approximately two years. As if being subjected to forced birth weren’t enough, they are carefully fed a diet of fairy tales and a narrow range of other approved books, preventing them from fully grasping the reality of their circumstances or understanding the confines of their lives in their sexist society. Devon was always a bit of a minor rebel, reading books as well as consuming them, even though “Reading was a shameful thing” (Chapter 2). In a very clever bit, Devon’s key exposure to the idea of a woman acting independently is playing the video game Tomb Raider, with its famous female protagonist Lara Croft. She also makes a true friend through those video games, Jarrow, whose asexuality makes his position in the book eater world deeply awkward at best. To make matters worse, he is deeply attached to his sister Victoria, whose own journey through book eater motherhood has left her with deep psychological scars.
Devon’s first child Salem is a daughter, and when she is “old enough” Devon is forced to go to her next marriage, leaving Salem in the dubious care of her aunts and with a promise from Devon’s first husband that she will be allowed to see Salem again when she turns ten. In the meantime, she is shipped to her second marriage, and the child she bears there is not only a son, but a mind eater. Devon names him Cai and successfully prevents him being murdered outright, but when the news breaks that the Ravenscar clan has dissolved and the Redemption drug is unavailable, she winds up responsible for her husband’s death and on the lam.
Not long after the vicar’s demise, Devon meets Hester, a woman of the Ravenscar clan who offers to bring Devon and Cai into her family’s stronghold. Devon wants enough of the drug to keep Cai safe, and then to escape to Ireland (the ferry crossing to Northern Ireland doesn’t require documents), but it isn’t clear whether Hester’s family will allow that. Pursued by the knights, who are led by Devon’s brother Ramsey, the three of them undertake a desperate journey north to Scotland. And while I won’t spoil any further details, I will say that there are plenty of twists and secrets along the way, some of which I guessed and some of which I didn’t see coming.
The Book Eaters is a wildly absorbing book; I devoured it in two sittings, and I enjoyed every page—though not in the same way that the book eaters do, consuming both the physical pages of books, the ink and the paper, as well as the information contained therein, with their “book teeth.” But the flavor of their food comes from both the books’ content and materials, which causes problems for Devon at least: “Modern books had good stories, but she hated the oily taste of glossy pages” (Chapter 14). Eventually she picks up a tip to put ketchup on them. Due to its content, Dante’s Inferno tastes of brimstone, while wine reminds Devon of “a well-crafted romance novel. Complex, sweet, and a little stinging” (Chapter 6). (What did book eaters do before the printing press? Presumably they were once known as “papyrus teeth” or “scroll teeth.” Did book eaters consume cuneiform tablets in ancient Mesopotamia, or oracle bones in ancient China?) Although I can see the similarities to vampires, as author Sunyi Dean has mentioned on Twitter, the deep gender divides in book eater society and the unique way that the book eaters operate put them in an inventive literary class of their own. Coupled with the deep northern England sense of place that the book wears lightly (although it’s possible I’m missing signifiers more subtle than the setting and Devon’s accent), Dean’s novel is compelling and original.
It’s also interesting to see motherhood placed front and center in a speculative fiction novel. While there have certainly been famous mothers in the genre—Cordelia Vorkosigan comes to mind, as does Essun of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy—it’s still not the most common position for a protagonist to be in. Devon’s own relationship with her motherhood is uncomfortable, just as her relationship with her queerness is; she didn’t choose either, but she doesn’t have much opportunity to express or explore the latter in normal book eater society. But she is fiercely committed to Cai, and she chooses to prioritize him and their relationship repeatedly, even as his own mind eater nature means that he grows a little more distant from her, a little less her son, with every mind he consumes; he’s already far older than his age as a result of his nature, and Devon comes to treasure each small glimpse of his child-self. At the same time, she knows that what Cai tells her is true: “You’re my monster and I’m yours, and even though I’m sad you lied to me and I’m sorry that we have to hurt more people, we must go together because we are a monster family.” (Chapter 29) It’s an interesting and painful position, and I suspect that its broad outlines may resonate with parents in a variety of circumstances.
The forced birth aspect of Devon’s story also deserves further mention. I admit that this angle didn’t occur to me until after the US Supreme Court rolled back the right to an abortion at the end of June, but once I noticed it in the book, it was undeniable: if both Cai and Devon are monsters, as they both agree, neither of them chose to be—Cai was born a mind eater, and Devon was married off and bred without any say in the matter. And yet it’s her refusal to abandon her maternal attachment to both her children that makes her first an eccentric and then, later, a renegade in book eater society, as well as a monster who willingly and knowingly sacrifices innocent people to preserve her own son’s life. “For here was the thing that no fairy tale would ever admit, but that she understood in that moment: love was not inherently good,” Devon realizes when Cai is born, and it’s true (Chapter 19). It’s hard to say what Devon might have become if she hadn’t become a mother, given the constraints of book eater society, but she would undeniably have been wholly her own person, making choices unencumbered by responsibilities she hadn’t chosen for herself. And Devon is a protagonist in a fantasy-horror book; she gets a good deal of agency in the book’s actual events. The same can’t be said of many people in the real world who aren’t able to terminate unwanted pregnancies.
As if all this weren’t enough, Dean also goes deep on the weird but meaningful references—the chapters start with epigraphs from works both fictional and non-fictional, ranging from The Terror (2018) to The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), but in the text itself, the deeply obscure fairy tales of Scottish author George MacDonald eventually become a touchstone for Devon, while her brother Ramsey thinks of his life in terms of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. (That both of these authors’ works are set in the nineteenth century suggests some of the problems with the standard book eater education program.) Although book eaters are supposed to consume writing rather than appreciate it, the web of allusions adds another interesting layer to the novel, which readers who get the references can enjoy in addition to the content. Dean’s Twitter handle is @Blind_Nycteris, suggesting that the MacDonald novel frequently mentioned in this novel, The History of Photogen and Nycteris (1882), is important to her too. The story concerns a boy and a girl who are raised by a witch; the boy, Photogen, never knows the day, while the girl, Nycteris, grows up in a room lit only by a single lamp. Each of them eventually violate the strictures laid upon them and, joining together to pool their various strengths and weaknesses, are able to defeat the witch and live freely. Although Devon’s comparisons between her and Nycteris’s circumstances are not always upbeat, the story does suggest a way forward for her and her unlikely, ragtag band of allies.
All in all, The Book Eaters is a wildly inventive, sometimes dark, and rather creepy novel that I would recommend to just about every fantasy fan. I’ll be very interested to read the next novel from Dean, and I’ll be thinking about The Book Eaters for a long time.