There’s a certain whimsy you feel when hearing the initial premise of The Book Eaters, where a family living in a huge manor eats books for sustenance, retaining the knowledge within while living in secret from the outside world. It was therefore quite a surprise to read a much darker story that is closer in tone to Grimm’s original fairy tales than to the bright and simple Disney versions. Part of that certainly has to do with the wrinkle that not all of these family members are book eaters. Some of them crave human minds instead.
The Book Eaters is the debut novel from Sunyi Dean and centers around a female book eater named Devon. Females are rare among “The Families,” so she grows up being treated like a princess right up until the day she is seen only as a breeder necessary to keep the race alive. The true evil displayed by the patriarchy becomes apparent to her, and once she gives birth to a mind eater, the dynamic between Devon and the rest of her family changes forever. We then see the depths Devon will go to in order to protect the ones she loves.
This book had me in its grip from the beginning and never let go. The fantastical society it creates is wholly original, but the darkness and conflict within is all too familiar, acting as a kind of microcosm for human civilization as a whole. The need for power can make someone do some terrible things, but so can the need for survival, and more importantly, the need to protect someone else. This story is not afraid to show the shades of gray that exist within its characters. No one is able to keep their hands clean of blood, and the struggle is made all the more interesting because of it.
Devon is a compelling protagonist that we see grow and fortify herself throughout the story. The narrative switches back and forth between present day and her past, showing the naive girl that slowly turns into the hardened but loving woman that is trying to take control of her own life. Sunyi Dean uses this method of storytelling to keep the readers on their toes throughout the present conflict while slowly building up backstory and world building in the past. Allies and enemies are made and it all comes together in a fiery conflict at the end.
It should be noted that there are great moments of levity amongst the hard hitting-drama. A friendship is made between Devon & a friend over a shared love of video games, and losing themselves in a different world with a comfortable structure is used as partial escape from their trauma. The book also contains queer and asexual representation and it was lovely to read these characters be able to express themselves and find community.
This story has “knights” and “dragons” and towers, but a major theme is that the fairy tales these children were literally fed are lies to keep them complacent and unimaginative. But once the characters realize that shaping their own destinies is possible, it is staggering the amount of change they can create. The Book Eaters is a highly entertaining mix of horror and drama, but it ultimately underlines the importance of hope. And I’ll take as much of that as I can get.
The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean is available now from your local independent bookstore or wherever fine books are sold.