The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean is by far the strangest book I’ve read in 2022, and I mean that in the best way possible. I was not expecting a story about book-eating creatures to pull a Handmaid’s Tale and push a desperate mother to the edge. It’s a dynamic book, and dare I say there is something for everyone in this dystopian story that evolves into an undercover mission and is topped with a sprinkling of horror.
Book eaters are humanoid creatures living in secret and consuming knowledge from the books they eat. They have established estates where they eat dusty pages and drink ink tea, but the future of the book eaters is bleak. The number of women is dwindling, and they are becoming precious commodities among the families. Devon, the Fairweathers’ prized daughter, is raised on a generous helping of lies. She is told that she is lucky and blessed, yet as she enters her first marriage, a grim reality begins to take shape. As a woman, Devon is controlled, coerced, and at times, beaten into submission. They take her child and force her to have another, but if the first child was perfect, the second is a monster, a mind eater who consumes minds instead of feasting on books. Devon decides she will do anything to protect her second child and that means escaping from the book eaters.
Book eaters live a cult-like existence, and themes of oppression dominate their story. Female book eaters are groomed from the moment they are born, beginning with the type of books they consume. Devon is only served fairy tales and stories of subservient women, while male book eaters are given a much more expansive diet. When the women reach adulthood, they enter several arranged marriages with older men to produce offspring. While the life of a book eater woman may be comfortable and even lavish for some, they are carefully kept in check and anyone who disrupts the delicate system is dealt with in horrifying ways. Women must either get in line or face the consequences. They are purposefully uneducated, separated from their families and children, and thrust into unhappy marriages—all to serve the larger patriarchal system.
The Book Eaters is also about love. Love comes in many forms, some heartwarming and others dark and twisted. Devon experiences very few happy moments in this book, and the root of her struggles is her love for her children. Her dedication as a mother is admirable, but the consequences of her love include a lot of pain and suffering. In Devon’s story, love seems more like a curse, which was an uncomfortable revelation for the reader at times. There were many moments where I wanted Devon to be selfish, only to be horrified by the thought of leaving the children with the book eaters. In the book, Dean explores what it means to love, and how it can bring out the worst in people. She consistently portrays love as a difficult decision that has to be made over and over again, no matter if it hurts.
There is a collection of interesting characters in this story, but I want to call out the fascinating relationship dynamic between Devon and her son, Cai. He may only be five years old, but he is a mini adult. Because he consumes minds, Cai has absorbed the knowledge and mannerisms of several people. He is less Devon’s son and more her partner in crime as they attempt to venture out into the world. It’s both heartbreaking and interesting to see this small boy become consumed by the last person he ate. Devon struggles to find Cai’s victims and fears that she loses him a little bit each time he eats. She loves him dearly but can’t find the strength to watch him feed, and she even has moments where she is afraid of him. However, Devon chooses Cai above all, and their unique relationship was definitely a highlight of this book.
The Book Eaters is a painful story, but there is also a sense of awe to be had for the courageous display of motherhood. I would have loved to explore the character relationships a bit more and have time to sit with some of the darker themes but overall it was a good read. The weird world of book eaters serves as an interesting backdrop and all of the elements make for a unique tale that reminds us that sometimes, good people have to make bad decisions to protect the ones they love.
Rating: The Book Eaters – 7.0/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.