Sunyi Dean’s debut novel The Book Eaters is a strange but resonant piece of modern fantasy. It centres around a race of non-humans who live in secret and obtain their sustenance by eating the written word, literally absorbing the knowledge of the books they eat. Although not all of their race are able to live that way and some, less fortunate have to absorb human consciousnesses, vampire-style, to survive. So long as readers can accept this basic premise, Dean goes on to deliver a tense, twisty journey into the book eaters’ world.
When the book opens Devon is on the run with her five year old son Cai. Devon is a book eater, one of the increasingly rare females from one of the six English book eater families. Her son, though, is a dragon, born with the need to feed on humans not books. When he does so, Cai retains the memories of those he has consumed. Devon is desperately searching for a source of the drug that can assuage her son’s growing hunger as the one book eater family who produced it has gone through a schism and its members are in hiding. But this is only the surface of Devon’s plans which run much deeper and seek to see her break free of the book eater families for good.
The Book Eaters while satisfying on the surface leaves plenty of questions unanswered, the biggest being what is the point of them, even as an idea. There is a hint that somehow they were created by an alien being to absorb human knowledge but this idea is never explored. They are superhuman in some way but have little interaction with the human world and most do not use their powers for anything other than survival. And they are dying out as fertility levels drop, forcing them into a Handmaid’s Tale-style swapping of fertile women to broaden the gene pool and keep the families viable. And then there are the dragons, more like your classic vampires but kept in service of the families and drugged to control their appetites. While it is not always necessary to ask “why” when reading a fantasy book, this one begs way too many questions and never satisfactorily answers any of them.
What this book does do well though is question the myths and tales on which we build our understanding of the world. Devon grew up literally devouring fairy tales, but only those approved by her family so always saw herself as a classic fairy tale princess. If this book is about anything it is about the mental prison that these tales can put women in, caught up in playing a role when they could be so much more. Devon becomes a self-rescuing princess, and one in touch with her non-standard sexuality as she takes on the toxic patriarchy of not only the traditional book eater families but the breakaway sect that she ends up finding.
Despite its drawbacks, The Book Eaters sets itself up as a modern fantasy that is in conversation with, and in some respects takes on, the tropes of classic fantasy and fairy tales. And it does so with a kick-arse, relatable heroine at it centre, a well-paced, twisty plot that slowly reveals itself through flashbacks and a build up to a (literally) explosive finale.