A Book of Unique and Delectable Flavor: The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean

There are magical books about stories, and there are magical stories about books, and Sunyi Dean’s engrossing The Book Eaters is both and neither of those things. The extended Family to which Devon Fairweather belongs subsist on books, crunching through tomes for the sustenance. Eating a book is a physical and a mental activity. Book eaters retain the words in the books they eat; the objects themselves have fascinating textures and flavors (added ketchup “tasted like an absurdist comedy”).  When Devon has to move to a new area, as she does often, she eats the bus and train schedules. But she was raised almost exclusively on fairy tales, which will do something to a kid’s mind.

And then there’s the matter of the eaters who are born rather differently.

The Book Eaters is a debut novel, but it has the feeling of a world long lived-in, something the author has had in her mind for so long that she knows every last detail, even the ones that need never make it to the page. (Every whisper about the eaters’ origins is tantalizingly incomplete.) Something like the feel of Holly Black’s Book of Night rises to the surface in just the first few chapters—something in the cheap walk-ups and leather jackets and Devon’s bone-deep weariness, and also something in her experience of not-that-small towns, the ones neither here nor there, not city or country.

Country is where Devon comes from, where she was raised a princess of a storied Family, the kind that’s so insular that it takes great pains to carefully arrange marriages with the other members of the Six Families. Knights handle these arrangements—knights, who travel by motorbike with their dragons. 

No one here is exactly a princess or a knight or a dragon, but this is the mythos of the Families. The rare girls are prized, but kept in the dark about so many things. Their purpose is to grow up, marry twice, bearing one child in each marriage, and then become one of the aunts who lurk around the old houses. Knights help all of this along. Dragons, though, have no say in anything. 

“Dragons” are how the Families refer to mind eaters, babies born with long tongues who live not on books, but on brains. There’s only one way to sate their cravings: a drug called Redemption that’s manufactured by one family. Said family has disappeared, taking with it the precious pills that Devon needs for her son, Cai.

The Book Eaters is told in two timelines, as Dean spins the tale of Devon’s childhood and marriages, weaving this horror story into her fraught, exhausting present. When we meet Devon, she’s escaped Family life with Cai and is trying her best to take care of him, with all that entails—and sometimes it entails bodies. She’s also trying to find a connection to hook her up with Redemption, and trying to stay one step ahead of her dragon brother.

Sunyi Dean is a sly, sharp, and deeply compassionate writer. If you, like me, are a reader who grew up on fairy tales and loved them to bits, you may bristle a little at the role they initially seem to play in keeping book eater women under patriarchal control. But there’s so much more to what Dean has to say about stories. Quotes open each chapter—some from a fictional history of book eaters, and some from books you may recognize, including The Princess Bride and assorted fairy tales. These old stories, with their princesses and stepmothers and witches, have a role to play. They just can’t be the only model a person has to play with, and they can’t always be taken at face value.

The Book Eaters is a book about making your own story, building your own world and your own rules out of bits and pieces of what’s been fed to you—and what you find for yourself. It’s a book about a lot of things, really—a deep sense of place, a frustration with traditional notions of family, a commitment to love as a choice, an insistence that things can be better—but at the center of it is Devon, who blazes with frustration and fierce maternal love, and who begins to understand the world not just by eating books about it, but by the complicated, messy process of living. Trying to keep Cai fed and happy is incredibly difficult, but so are things that so many of us take for granted, like knowing what to talk to people about, what to wear, how to get from place to place, how to be safe and fed and be able to just sit and breathe for five minutes when you need to. 

Precison-paced and full of hard-won wisdom and striking imagery, The Book Eaters is a mash-up, a love story, a large-scale family drama, a Gothic thriller just packed full of old houses, a coming of age story—it’s all the things Devon might eat and more. There’s mind-eating and dragon training; there’s also a slow-burn romance, excellent revelations, unexpected and unusual corpses, a memorable sequence on a train, and one endearing brother-in-law with a borrowed room full of video games. (Imagine going straight from fairy tales to PlayStation, with no TV or movies in between. What magic!) Amid all the deft character development and lush thematic work, The Book Eaters is also full of action and tension and some twists that I would prefer not to even think about spoiling for you. It’s not a book about saving the world, but it is a book about how the world ought to be a better place. Sometimes “the world” means the whole place, and sometimes it just means a piece of it, a little slice. Sometimes making it more livable for even just one person is a form of magic. Or maybe that’s just love. 

The Book Eaters is published by Tor Books.
Read the first chapter here.

Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. Sometimes she talks about books on Twitter.

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