By: Sunyi Dean
(I wrote this review for a newsletter/site I created called "Books in a Dumpster" that I ultimately decided not to continue after writing a few reviews. The format of this review reflects roughly how it appeared on the BiaD site.)
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.
I give this book 5 out of 6 families.
The title of the book isn’t metaphorical or anything, if you thought it might be like I did when I first heard about this. It’s a fantasy race/species/whatever of people that subsist from books. Not only do they eat books as their food, but they also absorb information from the book.
Want to learn Morse code? Eat a Morse code handbook and boom, now you know it. Want to learn the geographical layout of a new city? Eat a fucking map. Want to get really good at doing sex stuff? You’ll be eating the Joy of Sex tonight (and maybe other things). Pretty cool little thing, I thought.
But there are other eaters. Mind eaters. These are book eater kin who are born with a big ole floppy tube tongue that’s used to suck peoples brains out of their ears. Mind eaters cannot eat books to subsist, they need brains.
That is, until a drug was developed to help the mind eaters. Called “Redemption,” the drug takes away the need for mind eaters to consume brain goop (but, critically, not the want to consume brains) and allows them to stomach down some bookage.
There are six families of book eaters and as a species they have super strength, dark vision, and are immune to cold. It sounds kinda DnD-ish, and I think that may or may not be in part because author Sunyi Dean is an admitted tabletop D20 roller.
The Families themselves are like oldschool Victorian or Edwardian or Goreyan old families who live in manors and are run by patriarchs. Because of the low number of total book eaters alive, women from the Families are basically traded around by patriarchs in marriage contracts to give birth to new book eaters without inbreeding becoming too severe. The women will nurse their babes for three years and then the mothers are forced to return to their original family, to enter into a new contract. They will never see their child again. Due to fertility issues with book eaters most women can only have two pregnancies, after which point they become Aunts who have certain domestic duties within the Families.
The marriages are arranged and coordinated by a group called the Knights, who are an indepedent group of book eaters who don’t belong to any specific family, pledging their allegiance to the Knights themselves as a hierarchical group. The Knights also take mind eater young and turn them into Dragons, which are mind eaters that they control via abuse and Redemption and use as weapons.
This is the world Devon Fairweather grew up in; a princess bound to give birth to and then be separated from her children, she must fall in line to a shitty existence ruled by old dudes.
But of course, this is a fantasy story. A fairy tale, if you will. So we know some shit is about to go South and Devon is about to be poppin’ off.
Spoilers: She does pop off.
This is about as far as I can go without ruining parts of, or the whole book entirely, so I’ll just say that sometimes the story loses grander thematic significance in some of the many themes it puts forward in the story, the overall thruline of a mother doing whatever she has to for her child is a strong one, and is the driving force that always pushes the story forward.
The book feels to be part one of a series, and Dean has said that she would like to go back to The Book Eater landscape after writing a few other novels. Whether that eventually actualizes, who knows. I’d go for another ride in this world and I hope she does indeed continue the story.
I read some article about how “Witch Lit” is the hottest new thing since sliced fingers or whatever. This is a particularly awesome thing because my wife loves witch-related content, as do I. She’s reading The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings right now, and when she’s done I’m going to shove that into my eyeballs as well.
The Book Eaters isn’t about witches per se, but it’s got a vibe that I’d call witch-adjacent. Powerful women who are systematically kept down by a patriarchical society revolting against the men in charge and taking back their lives by force. Also, magic and such. It’s not witches but it’s witchy, I guess.
This book isn’t some Earth-changing masterpiece but I enjoyed reading it and stayed up late last night to power through 200+ pages of it to finish it out. It’s a page turner, as old dead people used to say in newspapers.
“Right Wing, Left Wing, Chicken Wing” - Modest Mouse (this is 100% unrelated to anything about the book)
The next book to be reviewed will be Matrix by Lauren Groff, because it sounds like another book where women just beat the fuck out of shitty worlds, and I’m all for it.
See you there, mon frère.