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.
CW: body horror, gore, explicit violence, domestic abuse, violence against children
I’ve been very intrigued by this book since I first read the premise but I was disappointed when I didn’t get the arc. What nice luck do I have though that I got an audio advance copy just a few days before the release and I devoured this book (pun totally intended) in just a couple of days. But I’m still pondering on my feelings about it.
I can’t deny that the writing is bewitching, the world created by the author is both atmospheric and horrifying, that we are excited to know more but also hate the parts we do get to know. Each chapter is preceded by an epigraph which are quotes from various fairytales and other books and a character’s journals and they do an amazing job of setting up the tone of the upcoming chapter, almost building up to the tension. The story told in alternate timelines also works well in keeping our attention because we wanna know how our main characters ended up in their current situation. While the story is set in our world, our characters feel like they belong to an alternate world because they are so isolated and have their own sets of rules and traditions, and revealing all of it little by little was neatly done by the author. And ofcourse the whole idea of this feeling like a fairytale at times and then the author subverting those familiar tropes was quite fascinating to read.
Undoubtedly though, what stays after finishing the book or even while reading is the kinds of questions that arise in our head. The book eater world is very misogynistic and women are rare in their community and treated like “princesses”, but we quickly see that being a princess here also means having absolutely no agency over their lives or bodies, being confined to forced arranged marriages and being vessels for breeding children, and then also being separated from said children at the age of three. It was very hard not to think of the current scenario of abortion rights in the US and how laws are being made every day in states to force women to give birth with no consideration to what they want.
The book eaters/mind eaters are also very much inspired by vampire lore as the author has mentioned many times in interviews and that was another interesting aspect of the story – getting to know vampiric characters in a new light. Most of the characters we encounter here are some form of monsters and once we see their actions and how they came to be that way, we start to wonder if there are good and bad monsters, and if we can really root for some of them.
This is ultimately the story of Devon, her son Cai and how motherhood transforms her life. We see the progression of her arc from being a carefree child who thinks she is a princess to one who realizes she has no freedom to make her choices, including the desire to want to be with her child. Once her son Cai turns out to be a mind eater, she is compelled to run with him for the sake of protecting him from everyone.
She makes choices and decisions one after the other which left me questioning (and her as well) if what she was doing was right and I don’t think we ever get any answers. She loves her son; while his nature might be monstrous, he is an innocent; so she will do whatever it takes to help him live his life. The author really digs deep into the idea that a mother’s love is love – it can’t be defined as good or bad, it just is. I had some trouble getting used to this idea of a mother’s love, because while motherhood is always exalted across cultures and it’s always said that a mother will do anything for her child, I’m not a mother and I’ve never felt such maternal instincts ever in my life. While Devon did struggle with what she had to do to feed Cai, she always chose what was necessary for his survival, and I sometimes found it hard to follow along with a character who could kill people and do many other destructive things along the way for her son.
There are other characters in the narrative, some who help Devon and others who hinder her but everyone has some sort of effect on her mindset and her decisions. I don’t wanna talk too much about them but I also think it would have been more interesting to have some of these side characters fleshed out a bit. They have just the necessary amount of interactions with Devon and it sometimes felt like they were all plot devices rather than characters themselves. But it’s also ultimately Devon’s story, so I guess it works fine for the overall narrative.
In the end, I can say this was a dark and engaging horror-fairytale story with a particular emphasis on the role of female agency and motherhood in a highly patriarchal world, and what does it actually mean to be good or bad in a world full of monsters. Whether the book leaves you fascinated or uncomfortable, it’ll hold your attention throughout and keep your mind whirling with more thoughts and questions as the pages go by. I also have to mention the audiobook narrator Katie Erich because she brings a unique voice and richness to this story and while it took me little time to get comfortable with her Northern England accent, it felt perfect for the story and I’m glad I got to listen to it.
PS: Thank you to Macmillan Audio and Netgalley for providing me with this advance listening copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.