(thanks to Sunyi Dean for granting me an unproofed ARC of this book!)
Read if you like: mystery, genre-blending, vampires/parasitic creatures, history, cults, books, family dynamics, queerness, dual timelines, ticking clocks, bad blood, secret societies, emotional burdens, hard choices, the struggle for freedom, sacrificial mothers, sassy kids “acting” old beyond their years, cursing, tension, suspense
Triggers: alcoholism, addiction, blood, murder, arson, human trafficking, drugs, profanity
Sunyi Dean’s The Book Eaters is a contemporary fantasy debut. It’s a story of motherhood, sacrifice, and hope; of queer identity and learning to accept who you are; of gilded lies and the danger of believing the narratives others create for you.
Out on the Yorkshire Moors lives a secret line of people for whom books are food, and who retain all of a book’s content after eating it. To them, spy novels are a peppery snack; romance novels are sweet and delicious. Eating a map can help them remember destinations, and children, when they misbehave, are forced to eat dry, musty pages from dictionaries.
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.
(Goodreads book profile here)
This is a genre-blending book that’ll stay a favorite of mine for years to come.
I’ll be buying every special edition of this book that I can get my hands on.
It ticked so many boxes for me, both on a structural and emotional level, and I’ll try to peel them apart below here, but I can only apologize if I fail. The books we love most are often the hardest to deconstruct, after all. It’s much easier to be specific about what we don’t like than what we like.
Let’s start with the emotional level.
This book absolutely ripped my chest open, pulled my ribs apart, and plucked my staccato heart from my body as if I was nothing but a deflated, fleshy reliquary for something bigger than myself—and I was totally fine with it, actually, don’t let my death rattle stop you on your way out the door. Put less viscerally, this is a book that depicts an ugly truth so beautifully that you can’t look away from it. The truth in question?
Love makes monsters of us all.
Even mothers. Especially mothers. Especially those that we love in return.
“The Book Eaters” is the first book I’ve read in a long while that handles this theme as delicately and thoroughly as it does. It always tethers on a tightrope. Too much love; not enough love. Too much loyalty; not enough loyalty. Too much sacrifice; not enough sacrifice. It’s ultimately a book about choice. Every book is about choice, of course, in the sense that choice creates character engagement and investment—but this book specifically addresses the struggle of choice. The cost of choice. The cost of freedom. The promise of freedom.
This grand emotional toll of the book is in large part due to the complexity of characters, which leads us into the more structural aspect of why I loved the book. Dean writes characters that straddle your chest, clasp your face between their hands, and force you to look at them. To see them at their very worst, yet root for them regardless. This is a high demand to make of a reader, and it’s a hard balance to strike for an author.
Dean also peppers the character dynamics and interactions with a wry, uplifting sense of humor. It feels very “if-I-don’t-laugh-I’ll-cry”. It’s a humor that fits the theme of the book. After all, when your five-year-old son’s starvation for human minds makes you a serial killer, it’s hard to do anything but laugh off the pain.
What truly shone for me structurally, however, was how the dual timelines of the book slowly inch towards each other, finally meeting at the end, gradually unveiling (purposeful!) holes in the plot until everything suddenly makes sense. This suspenseful thriller of a book doesn’t deal so much in twists as it deals in mysteries—and I’m here for it. Dean masterfully distracts you from the obvious, from putting two and two together, and so when the obvious thing does happen, you slap your forehead and scoff at yourself—because you should’ve seen it coming.
Then, of course, there’s also the worldbuilding. This is technically a contemporary setting, but a lot of the worldbuilding stems from an older and more traditionally rooted age. An Arthurian-inspired age. In many ways, the world also mimics that of classic vampires in that the main characters are parasitic non-human creatures that feast on humans while living secretly among them. Only in this case, the feasting isn’t blood, but books and brains. Literally. And yet, while the world feels culturally steeped in old tradition, the origin story is distinctively science-fiction. This is a book that blends elements from so many genres that you never quite know what to expect. And perhaps it’s this unpredictability of the world that distracts you from the obvious and from figuring out the mysteries prematurely; you’re so busy piecing the world together that the plot itself kinda just cruises along, bringing you along for the ride. You need to understand the world in order to understand the plot, and Dean keeps both elements so close to her chest that you only really understand it when she wants you to understand it.
I could keep going, but I think I’ll leave it here with one last note: I’m not a mother, struggling or otherwise, but this book made me feel like one, and that fact speaks volumes.
If you like character-driven books that blend genres and keep you rooted to your seat despite (because of?) the trainwreck you know is about to happen, then this is a book for you.