In Sunyi Dean’s first novel, we’re introduced to book eaters; a humanoid race who consume the written word to survive, literally living off of stories, and benefitting from the ability to retain and access all the information in the texts they consume. But, where one might imagine the state of enlightenment this might lead to, the shadow society of the book eaters is straight out of a Regency romance, with patriarchal dominance, unbreakable gender roles, limited willingness to accept new ideas, and a devotion to tradition. Indeed, in the culture that our book eater heroine Devon grows up in, controlling the diet of books that are consumed is a profound metaphor for how societies will seek to control the ideas its members are allowed to have.
As a rare female book eater, Devon is greatly prized, but only as a brood mare. Indeed, there is a moment in the book, as Devon is being taken to her first marriage by her uncle and they come upon her soon-to-be in-laws on horseback, leading her uncle to suggest that the sizeable dowry she’s brought in will allow her own family to enjoy such expensive animals themselves soon, where the imagery couldn’t be less subtle. It is from this oppressive society that Devon is running, her son Cai in tow, when we meet her at the start of the book.
The fugitive state is not just because of her status as a female book eater, however, but because Cai is himself a rare variant of book eater as well, though not a prized one. Cai is a mind eater, unable to live off eating books, but needing the the minds of living humans. Her society would kill or weaponise such an abomination, but Devon is committed to saving and protecting her child, and the book chronicles the dark lengths she is forced to go to in order to do so.
There’s a clash of tone here–Gormenghast meets Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files—and while the work that’s been put into the world building is careful, it’s still somewhat ragged round the edges and unconvincing at times. The book is slow-burning as a result, but the character work is compelling for that. This is a book about motherhood and womanhood, uniquely told from the perspective of central characters who do not embody the usual tropes of mother and child, of woman or boy, and who aren’t leaning on any crutch of likeability or sympathy to make their suffering more palatable. Devon is all the more tangible and compelling a character that she demands what she needs from a world that doesn’t want to give it to her, and without seeking the readers approval to justify her actions, which is a powerful feminine message. You do end up siding with her and Cai, but might find that getting to the point where you care—at all—for these characters takes so long to reach that you may not count the wait as worth it.
I’m grateful to Harper Collins UK for sending me this ARC.