June 4, 2024

Review: The Book Eaters

The Book Eaters The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book straddles the divide between science fiction and fantasy: to me, it has strong SF underpinnings (the titular Book Eaters, according to their own mythology, were genetically engineered to somewhat resemble humans and placed on Earth thousands of years ago to gather information by an alien Collector, who left and has never returned) but a fantasy/horror feel. (Especially since the Book Eaters are a weird zombie/vampire takeoff who consume literal books and magazines with their "book teeth," which enables them to instantaneously learn and store vast amounts of information. In perhaps the ultimate expression of "you are what you eat," when a book eater dies their blood turns to ink and their bodies decay into rotting rolls of paper.)

(This book also has a strong element of macabre humor.)

This is also a bit of a horror story as well, as the book eaters are divided into five authoritarian, patriarchal Families. Our protagonist, Devon Fairweather, is one of a dwindling number of female book eaters, and she is forced to marry and bear children for different people. The species as a whole is in decline, as there are very few "mother-brides" left and a book eater woman can only bear two children, rarely three, before they go into premature menopause. The book eaters realize they are headed for extinction and are attempting to repurpose human IVF technology for themselves, but in the meantime this (barbaric) breeding program is enforced by the families and a faction called "knights" that arrange the marriage and police book eater women. There is also a third kind of book eater, a "mind eater," who are born with long proboscis tongues that can be inserted into a victim's ear canal and suck out part of their brains (which is why this is something of a zombie story). Devon's second child, her son Cai, is a mind eater. The main storyline follows Devon and Cai and their attempts to escape from the Families and get Cai a supply of Redemption, the Family-manufactured drug that controls his cravings. Unfortunately the only Family making the drug, Ravenscar, has fractured due to a civil war and has fled to an undisclosed place that Devon has to find before Cai starves.

This is pretty detailed worldbuilding and a convoluted plot, but the heart of the story is love, motherhood and the monsters both can turn us into, as the book explores the depths of what a mother will do for her child. For Cai to survive, Devon has to hunt down humans and feed to him, and she picks those on the fringes of human society: the elderly, the homeless. When Cai feeds, he absorbs the minds of the humans he feeds on, and as a result he is a combination of many different people: is there anything of Cai left? Yet sometimes the vulnerable five-year-old who needs his mother peeks through.

As a matter of fact, as far as monsters go, pretty much every character in this story is a monster: the book eaters view themselves as a superior species and humans are pretty much the vermin under their feet, and the heads of the Families are even more entitled and arrogant than that. (As evidenced by the fact that they consign their women to what amounts to reproductive slavery. I've read a few of those kinds of stories, and for once I would like to see someone say, "Fuck you, if I don't have kids and the species dies out, so be it. If forced breeding is what it takes for us to survive, we don't deserve to.") That doesn't make them less compelling: the reader comes to empathize with Devon and Cai, even acknowledging the terrible things they do to survive and stay together. It takes a good writer to make us care about characters like that.

This story is pretty much wrapped up, but there is room for a sequel, as Devon also has a daughter, older than Cai, that she needs to rescue before the girl grows up and is forced into the cycle of marriage. I would read such a book myself, but all told this is a pretty harrowing, gruesome world. Still, the characters, as horrible as they can be, carry the story.

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