Review | The Book Eaters – Sunyi Dean

About the Book

Out on the Yorkshire Moors lives a secret line of people for whom books are food, and who retain all of a book’s content after eating it. To them, spy novels are a peppery snack; romance novels are sweet and delicious. Eating a map can help them remember destinations, and children, when they misbehave, are forced to eat dry, musty pages from dictionaries.

Devon is part of The Family, an old and reclusive clan of book eaters. Her brothers grow up feasting on stories of valor and adventure, and Devon—like all other book eater women—is raised on a carefully curated diet of fairytales and cautionary stories.

But real life doesn’t always come with happy endings, as Devon learns when her son is born with a rare and darker kind of hunger—not for books, but for human minds.

304 pages (hardcover)
Published on August 2, 2022
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This book was an ARC sent by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Somehow, I managed to nab an arc of this book about a hundred years ago. I read the entire thing in two days, and then I went online to gush about how amazing it was and realized the book didn’t publish for months yet. So, I sat on all my thoughts. I recently realized the book published and I’d forgotten to gush about how much I loved it (I’ve been so busy it’s ridiculous), so here I am. Better late than never, right? 

I don’t even really know where to start with this one, which is surreal because books are my livelihood and I always seem to know what to say about them. This one, though, crosses a lot of streams, all of which I love, and it left me with so many thoughts. How do you discuss a book that defies explanation?

Basically, living on the fringes of UK society is a secret group of people known as book eaters. They consume books for food, and then retain the knowledge they gain by eating said books. This subset of society is dwindling, and Dean shows how they’ve survived. It’s a secret society wherein women are bound by strict rules, obligations, and marriage contracts. Devon Fairweather is the only daughter of an ancient clan. When her firstborn daughter is seized and she gives birth to a son, who is a mind eater (an even darker subset of book eaters), she sees the writing on the wall and goes on the run with her son, Cai. 

However, her search for freedom is not all it is cut out to be, and soon Devon finds herself mired in a situation where the cost for freedom might be too high, and the promise of of it might not be all she’s anticipating. While she and her son try to live among the humans, Devon is forced to do ever darker things to survive. There’s a whole lot of soul searching in this book, and crossroads where decisions must be made, and no matter which way you go, it’s going to hurt. 

The thematic threads in The Book Eaters highly appealed to me. The cost of freedom, the battle to liberate oneself from an extremely restrictive upbringing, and the relationship between choices and consequences are the lifeblood that run through this book. Explored in many different ways, these themes give the book a soul that is undeniable and unavoidable. Not only are we reading a story that is entertaining and engrossing, but we’re exploring fundamental parts of the human experience, made even more dramatic through the world Dean has created. 

Told in alternating bursts between the past and the present, Dean uses a distinct narrative style to show how past choices impact present decisions with some delicious and delicate layering that added so much dimension to the story without ever being overwhelming. I loved the choices Dean made in how she wrote this book. She didn’t just want to tell a story, but she made fundamental decisions in how she told the story that made the story itself that much better. This is what I mean when I tell authors they need to make narrative decisions. Don’t just fall into the plot, but make a distinct choice in how you navigate your book’s terrain, because as Dean shows, those decisions can push your story to a whole new level. Showing the impact and relationship between past and present as a narrative style was nothing short of inspirational. 

Devon is an amazing character to follow, and watching her change and grow throughout the book is that much more dramatic due to the interplay between past and present. This is the artistry of character development, and the subtle grace of character-as-plot. It was… magnificent. Here, we don’t just see a woman pushed to her limit and left to flounder, but we understand what pushed her and we see the results of all that pushing. Dean takes us on a subtle emotional exploration as Devon descends into disillusionment and then her fight for both her and her son’s freedom. We witness the transformation of self through both choice and pressure. It was profound and captivating, and done with such a delicate hand, but with such purposeful intent.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this book, however, is the atmosphere. Gothic horror is something I love, but I read very little of because I think it’s hard to get right. I wouldn’t call this horror, per se, but I would absolutely call it gothic, and Dean knows exactly when to make those gothic notes sing, and when to pull back and let implication reign. This isn’t a light book, so I would advise readers who enjoy more uh… happier and jovial tales to probably be aware. Go into it with the right mindset. This one will make you hurt, and it will make you uncomfortable, but sometimes that’s the point.

And oh, that atmosphere. It truly does reign, filling each page until Devon’s world, her story, were more real than real, and I couldn’t tell where the book ended and I began. 

All of this works together to create a nearly flawless story that explores themes that profoundly resonated. I loved how Dean dove into aspects of self, motherhood, love, and control. Ultimately, as someone who edits full-time, reads a whole lot, and writes my own books, the thematic exploration of how stories can shape our minds and even our realities was hit my soul just right, and resonated with me in a way that very few things have thus far. 

The Book Eaters was an absolutely brilliant debut. Stunningly written and crafted with such purpose and intent, it truly shines. This book deserves every bit of praise it is receiving and more. I don’t know what Sunyi Dean has in store for her literary future, but I recognize a star when I see one.

This is an author to watch.

5/5 stars