Autistic Book Party, Episode 67: The Book Eaters

Today’s Book: “The Book Eaters” by Sunyi Dean

The Plot: Devon Fairweather is a book eater – part of a secretive family of magical creatures who take their sustenance from books. After being forced into marriage twice, Devon goes on the run with her young son, Cai – who eats, not books, but human minds.

Autistic Character(s): The author!

“The Book Eaters” is a grim, suspenseful thriller. To be honest, I don’t think its early marketing is doing it any favors. The idea of a book eater at first appears nostalgic – (“You and I know the distinct joy of devouring an incredible read,” says the back cover copy on my ARC) – but the picture that Dean paints is anything but. Like some other familiar families of magical creatures from urban fantasy, the book eaters live separately from human society, on large estates controlled by patriarchs. There are few women, and the patriarchs are very concerned with how to continue their line without inbreeding. As a result, book eater women like Devon are kept under strict control: cosseted, fed a diet of fairy tales, and given no choice at all in their marriages, childbearing, or even their ability to stay with their children after birth.

Naturally, the plot revolves around Devon’s attempts to escape her family, but these attempts are complicated – especially by Cai, whose abilities are genuinely horrific. He can’t survive without either eating human minds – essentially destroying the humans in the process – or taking a drug called Redemption that only certain book eater families possess. Devon and Cai are in dire straits. Dean uses those straits to create a twisty thriller in which more layers of trickery are revealed at every step, as conflict erupts between the book eater families and Devon attempts to play every side to survive. Like many survivors, she is resourceful and ruthless – and devoted, on a level that surpasses rationality or morality, to her son.

There’s a point to why most of the book eaters are sustained by books, specifically. As Devon complains to another character at one point:

“We lack imagination,” Devon said, relentless. “Even if we used Dictaphones and scribes, we’d never be able to write books the way humans can. We struggle to innovate, are barely able to adapt, and end up stuck in our traditions. Just eating the same books generation after generation, thinking along the same rigid lines… Our childhood books always ended in marriage and children. Women are taught not to envision life beyond those bounds, and men are taught to enforce those bounds… I could not imagine a better or different future, Hes, and because I could not imagine it, I assumed it didn’t exist.”

This isn’t a book about the joy of reading. It’s a book about the way what we read can limit us, the potential that books possess both to expand the mind and to constrain it. It’s also a meditation on motherhood and monstrousness. If you want a sharply intelligent, unflinching, at times horrifying tale of what a mother will do for her survival and that of her dangerous child, this one’s for you.

The Verdict: Recommended-2