Devon Fairweather is a princess. She lives in a manor house in the countryside with her family. She is brought up understanding how special she is, that she will marry several times, and how important her future marriages will be to securing the stability of her people. She lives on a steady diet of fairy tales.
When I say “diet,” I mean it literally. Devon is no Snow White or Rapunzel. She is a book eater, a member of a human-like, but decidedly non-human, species that consumes printed matter instead of food. Doing so allows them to retain the information in the text. For example, eating a Polish book helps one understand the language. We learn early on that they answer to a mysterious “Collector” who tasked them with gathering knowledge in this fashion.
It may seem like Devon has a charmed life, and at first, she believes she does. When she is sent off to another book eater family’s manor to marry and have a child, she goes willingly. It is only after her child, a daughter named Salem, is born that things start to unravel. In book eater society, the birth of a daughter is rare. Women’s lives are strictly controlled, their marriages strategically arranged to ensure the survival of the species. As a young woman of childbearing age, Devon is expected to leave Salem to be raised in her father’s family’s manor while she, Devon, returns to the Fairweather manor before moving onto a second marriage. Devon can’t stand the thought of being separated from her daughter, no matter what tradition dictates, so she takes matters into her own hands.
I can’t say much more than that about the plot without giving too much away. As the story progresses, Devon has to do things and make choices that are at times disturbing and hard to read. Her second child, a son named Cai, is one of the unfortunate members of their species born as “mind eaters” rather than book eaters. As the name implies, they consume human minds rather than printed text. The things Devon does to ensure her child never goes hungry are unsettling, to say the least. Fair warning that the amount of death and violence in this book can be deeply upsetting.
The Book Eaters is ultimately about how people deal with trauma, and what happens when they break away from abusive people and settings. Devon was a princess. She thought she was living in a fairy tale. Then she realized the story was far more sinister than she ever could have imagined. Crafting her own narrative would come at a high price.
This book is also about love, and how it can drive people to do monstrous things. Devon hunts innocent people for her son to feed on, because she loves him. If he doesn’t eat, he will become less and less himself, and more of an unthinking monster. The Book Eaters asks us what really makes a monster. Is it the mother doing what she must to care for her son? Is it the son himself, who didn’t choose to be born a mind eater, the true monster? Or is it the patriarchal Family system, that views women and children as pawns in the game of book eater survival? I don’t think there are any easy answers here.
If you’re looking for a chilling read for the Halloween season, The Book Eaters is a good choice. It will unsettle you and make you think. Personally, I’m looking forward to future works by Sunyi Dean. If her first novel had such an interesting and original concept, I can’t wait to see what she writes next.
You can find The Book Eaters in the Rutgers Recreational Reading Collection.