Exclusive Excerpt: THE BOOK EATERS

• 16 min read

A fantastical debut novel from Sunyi Dean

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 fairy tales 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.

The beautiful cover art is by incredible visual artist Su Blackwell with jacket design by the amazing Jamie Stafford-Hill.

Here’s what Lindsey Hall, senior editor at Tor, has to say about The Book Eaters:

We all love to "devour" good books, and in Sunyi Dean's debut novel, that idea is made a reality -- a world where people literally EAT books as food.
I will never forget reading the opening chapter, which begins with a woman welcoming a priest into her home. He's there to try and help her son, he thinks -- but he's wrong. "are you a good person? the woman asks the priest, just before she pushes him into a locked room, where her son is waiting, hungry. because, after all, * we only want the best for our children right? *
And after this shocking, vivid opening, THE BOOK EATERS did not let me go for a minute. Sunyi goes on to land twist after twist -- things I truly did not see coming! It's a book full of surprises, betrayals, and even a bit of romance, but at its heart is always the hugely intimate question: how far would we go for the ones we love, for those who count on us to protect them?
This book gave me the pace and surprises of a thriller, the speculative joy of imagining what books I'd eat if I could, and it immersed me in unflinching moral quandaries like only SFF can do. I love every piece of it and am in awe of the way Sunyi makes it all work.

Sunyi Dean is an autistic author of fantasy fiction. Originally born in the States and raised in Hong Kong, she now lives in Yorkshire with her children. When not reading, running, falling over in yoga, or rolling d20s, she sometimes escapes the city to wildswim in lonely dales.

Her short stories have featured in The Best of British Scifi Anthology, Prole, FFO, and Tor Dot Com. The Book Eaters is her debut novel.

You can check out the opening pages of The Book Eaters here and an exclusive excerpt from Chapter 5 below!

Then, add The Book Eaters to your tbr here. Pre-order it from your local independent bookseller, or order it via Bookshop.org to support independent booksellers throughout the US and the UK. For international shipping, you can try Barnes & Noble. If you prefer audiobooks, here’s a Libro.fm link. You can also request The Book Eaters from your local library — here’s how to get in touch with them. And if you need to order from the Bad River Website, here’s a link that will leverage your order for good.


An Exclusive Excerpt from The Book Eaters

Chapter 5

THE HAZEL EYES OF HESTER

PRESENT DAY

Regardless of their origins, I believe that ’eaters have been with us for centuries at a minimum. I am reminded of the myth of vetalas in India, de- scribed as “evil spirits.” They are classed as a kind of early vampire myth, yet unlike the pishachas (another creature from Sanskrit legend) the vetalas are not bloodsuckers. Instead, they are more like causers of mayhem, lurking in darkness, and known for their vast knowledge and deep insight.

Sound familiar? For me, this myth overlaps heavily with what we know of book eaters.

Amarinder Patel, Paper and Flesh: A Secret History

A sense of unease settled across Devon’s shoulders as she ducked into the Crow’s Nest Pub.

She paused in the entryway, trying to suss out the source of her anxiety. Hot air blasted her cheeks and neck, negating the pleasant outside chill as the glass door closed softly behind. A tattered wall poster suggested ten helpful ways to spot cancer; it seemed out of place for a pub. Could ’eaters even get cancer? One of many things Devon didn’t know about her own kind. Girls weren’t told things unless they needed to know.

She craned her head, peering into the main area: high ceilings, plastic chandeliers, wooden floors shot through with cracks, and streetlights blinking through leaded windows. Flaking tinsel draped the walls and a plastic tree lurched in the corner, hung with Poundland baubles. Most people wore bright colors and cringeworthy Christmas tops, in stark contrast to Devon’s own all- black uniform of jacket, boots, trousers, and shirt.

Aside from the tawdry atmosphere, nothing seemed wrong or out of the ordinary. Yet she couldn’t shake that sense of tense watchfulness, an itch between the shoulder blades that wouldn’t quite go away.

Ridiculous. No time for paranoia; she had a job to get on with.

Devon stepped through and pushed her way to the bar. People bustled around each other, noisy and cheerful. Tomorrow, the pub would be closed for Christmas Day; tonight, it was open with extended hours to accommodate every alcohol-related need.

She stepped up to the bar, flagged down a barman. “Pint of Guinness, please. Go easy on the head.”

“As you like.” He pulled the lever, filling a glass. “On your own tonight, then?”

“No.” She forced a polite smile and tried not to resent his wholly unnecessary small talk. “I’m waiting on a friend.”

“Thought you might be.” He handed her the brimming glass and a napkin. “Got any special plans for Christmas?”

The idle question stung.

“Yes,” she said, a little sharp. “Later tonight, I’ll be holding a vigil for someone I lost ten years ago.” The compass weighed like a lodestone.

The barman left her alone after that. Devon paid with a good tip and avoided any further eye contact. She took a long sip from her drink while she waited for Chris, or whatever his real name was.

And waited.

And waited some more.

People brushed past. Laughter rose and fell around her. By eight twenty, she was most of the way through her drink. Devon checked her phone. Nothing. No cancelation, no excuses, they’d simply ghosted. Either Chris-the-illicit-chemical-supplier had gotten cold feet, or he was running late. Neither was a scenario she had time for.

Frustration washed through her frame, amplifying the tiredness, and she leaned against the bar top. If this was a bust . . . Her sanity and patience were a thin veneer these days. Sixteen months of dragging Cai all across England had felt like sixteen years. Exhausting, repetitive, bleak. So many dead ends.

She was finding people, sure. The Ravenscars had sourced equipment and chemical components from a variety of shady human organizations. There were plenty of people to chase up. But such folk were skittish. Many had refused to meet with her or deal with her. Others claimed they no longer supplied that Family.

Chris was the third person to admit he actually had dealt with the Ravenscars, citing one Killock Ravenscar by name. He was also the first to agree to tell her more information—for a price. If he showed up, anyway.

“Pardon, but do you have the time?”

Devon looked over her shoulder. And then looked down—at a much smaller woman. Bright hazel eyes peered up through a pair of rectangular glasses. Barely over five feet, with rounded shoulders and stocky build. She was somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five. Her wool coat smelled of expensive cigarettes and her leather handbag was exquisitely made. Devon didn’t know a lot about fashion, but she did know a fair amount about leather, having eaten it all through her childhood.

“Eight twenty-five, assuming my watch is accurate.”

“Oh.” Hazel-Eyes deflated. “That’s even later than I thought.” Her accent was erratic, a mix of Scottish and Geordie. Border counties, likely enough. Not uncommon in these parts.

“Were you waiting on someone?” Devon twisted toward her.

“A Christmas Eve date, sort of. I think she’s stood me up. We were supposed to meet at half past seven.” Hazel-Eyes had what Devon thought of as hair-colored hair: a muddy salad of dusty brown and dirty blond. Beneath the expensive coat, the rest of her was that same kind of mishmash, from the brown-green irises and patchwork skirt to the asymmetrical blouse.

“Mine’s stood me up, too,” Devon said. “Unless they’re just late.” Hazel-Eyes squinted at her skeptically. “Do you really think that?”

“No, I guess not.” Devon drained the last of her Guinness. “I don’t have much luck with people.” True on so many levels.

“I think you just haven’t met the right person.” Hazel-Eyes climbed onto the bar stool. Her feet didn’t touch the floor when she sat, unlike Devon’s. “Or else you don’t give anyone a chance.”

“Little of column A, and a little of column B.” Devon crumpled a napkin in her palm. She was thinking about how Cai flicked his tongue when he was hungry. “So, um. What’s your name? If we’re both stuck here, waiting.”

“Hester. Like that poor woman in Hawthorne’s book, The Scarlet Letter?

Terribly pretentious, I know.” Her grin was self-deprecating.

“Ah, that’s not so bad, it’s a pretty enough name. Try being a woman called Devon.”

Hester snorted. “All right, you win. Let me guess, that’s where you were conceived?”

“Nah, Family tradition,” Devon said. “A lot of us have location names.” Then she added, with rare recklessness, “It was also my grandmother’s name, I’m told. She had it worse—her surname was Davenport.”

“She was a—oh, I see. Devon Davenport. Ouch.” A light, easy laugh. Belonging to someone with a light, easy conscience, no doubt. “Where are you from, anyway? You don’t sound like a Geordie.”

“Um.” The question hit hard, bringing Devon back to reality. Her past was problematic and her goal was to meet Chris, and keep Cai fed. How was this nonsense chat furthering either goal? She needed to end the encounter.

“I’m guessing Derby,” Hester said, crossing and uncrossing her legs. Her shoes were either brand-new, or meticulously polished. “Devon from Derby. Am I close?”

But Devon was hungry, too, in her own way. She craved company from someone her own age, who was pleasant and affable and not just another hapless old man. What was another hour of time, in the end? It would keep the disappointment of her failed meeting at bay, at least.

“Hey, are you all right? Was it something I said?”

“Sorry, it’s just this pub. All these Christmas lights give me a headache.” Devon pushed away her empty glass. “Would you mind if we got out of here and went somewhere quieter? It’s so noisy, I can hardly hear you and—”

Hester hopped off the stool and straightened her odd blouse. “I know just the place, and it’s only a short walk.”

Devon forced a grin, trying to enjoy the moment. What else was there, after all? Chris wasn’t coming.

They squeezed out of the crowd, half tumbling to the street. Darkness softened civilization’s hard neon edges, and the sudden lack of bodies created a vacuum of calm.

“Do you do this a lot?” Devon wished she could take off her stuffy jacket. “Get stood up on a date and pick someone else, I mean.”

“Is this a date?”

“Doesn’t have to be.” Careful, she told herself. Not too eager, not too desperate. “Where are we going?”

Hester steered them down a couple of blocks and bought a fresh set of drinks from a quayside pub. They must have looked an odd pair, Devon in her heeled boots and severe, dark clothes; Hester, short and pastel and fluttering. But Newcastle had its share of odd folk and no one commented.

Drinks bought, they sat outside in the beer garden despite the chill, people- watching and talking about nothing in particular. Hester chatted easily about books, films, the weather, and various other things like they’d been friends for years—a trait that Devon, who had gone without friends for most of her life, found very odd. And having little she wanted to say about herself, she simply listened as much as she could.

Maybe this was what it felt like to be human and normal, if such a thing as “normal” existed, even among humans. Was this a life she would have wanted? So impossible to judge. The world was a series of fenced-off fields, each patch of grass categorically greener than its neighbors.

When Devon had been young, she’d wanted to sometimes read books and sometimes eat books, rather than always eating them, but the main thing was choosing her own books, deciding how to shape and immerse herself.

That basic desire hadn’t changed with age. She craved, still, a sense that she had options, that her life wasn’t an inevitable series of events. Everything in her childhood had been prearranged, her personality and outlook sculpted to fit into the Fairweather narrative. The Families’ narrative.

“Either you’re the best listener I’ve ever met, or you’re very mysterious and trying to stay silent,” Hester said, after her own chatter had drifted to a standstill.

“I think you’ve confused mysterious for boring. There’s nothing to know, honestly.” Nothing that would interest a human woman, anyway.

“Oh yeah? I bet I can guess.” Hester sat up, leaning forward. “Let’s see. I bet . . . I bet your parents are divorced, and that’s why you’re so aloof.” She grinned, sipping her bourbon and Coke.

“More separated than divorced.” Devon wondered if her mother still cared about a small girl abandoned to Fairweather Manor. She added defensively, “I’m not that aloof. We’re talking, aren’t we?”

“Separated is basically divorced,” Hester said, but that wasn’t right or true. Divorce was a choice; forcible separation wasn’t. Amberly Blackwood hadn’t been given any choices. “And you are the dictionary definition of aloof.”

“Well—”

“Wait, I’m still guessing!” A bright laugh. “I think your family is fusty and rules-bound, very old-fashioned, and you’ve been married before but didn’t like it. Am I right?”

Something uneasy stirred in Devon’s chest. Was it her imagination, or did Hester’s gaze suddenly sharpen?

She feigned amusement. “Uh-huh. Sounds like you’re projecting, there.” “Maybe I am.” Hester blushed, washing away Devon’s brief flare of suspicion. “Fine, last guess. I’m going to get something right. I think . . . I think you are a secret bookworm. You’ve got that pensive look to you. Do you read much?”

“Er.” Across thirty years of life, Devon had eaten close to thirty thousand books, and read at least three thousand. “Fair bit of reading, I guess.”

It was more information than she could access simultaneously, and her mental sifting grew slower every year in steady little increments. Just like Ramsey had warned, when they were younger.

“I thought so,” Hester said, tipping her glass back. “I bet you read everything.”

“Nah. Not a literary kind of person. I like thrillers and crime.” She shrugged. “Trashier the better. Fun books. Moreish books. Leave all that posh lit-fic to the old fuddy-duddy types.” Like her uncle. “Want another drink? I’ll pick up this round.”

“Just Coke this time,” Hester said. “When you’re my size, you hit your limits faster.”

Devon dipped inside to queue up. Her phone buzzed while she was ordering and she flipped it open to check her texts.

Changed me mind. Keep ur money. Sry.

She snapped the clamshell shut and folded it away, too tired and disappointed to even be angry. There were still leads she could chase, a handful of names left on her mental list to check up on.

In the meantime, best if she could find someone safeish for Cai to feed on before they left town. Someone happy, innocent, sweet.

Someone like Hester.

The thought sank through her like a brick in water. In truth, Devon didn’t like the idea of feeding women to Cai, and had so far managed to avoid it. It felt worse, somehow, which she knew was irrational. A life was a life, and all that.

Except it wasn’t all equal, not to Devon. Drag out Hardin’s lifeboat ethics scenario and suddenly you found that there were all sorts of criteria for who to save, and who to drown. Perhaps it was book eater upbringing, whispering to her that women were valuable and less disposable; or possibly it was just a shade too easy to sympathize with someone of the same gender. Whatever the reason, Devon wanted to spare women from her son.

But here and now, strapped for time and options, she found herself considering the choice without recoiling. Cai was hungry, she needed out of Newcastle, this stranger had landed in her lap like a gift-wrapped present. On Christmas Eve, no less. It made sense, if she could manage to woman up and do it.

Suddenly, Devon felt very sober despite the rounds of Guinness. Her son was patiently waiting at home. Guilt swarmed her for having forgotten about him, even for a couple of hours. And elsewhere in the city, knights were circling. No time for weakness.

She collected her drinks and walked back to the table, smiling but laser focused.

When they were halfway through their pints, Devon leaned across the table and said above the din of chatter, “Wanna come back to mine?”

“That depends,” Hester said, into her ear. “Is this going to be one of those bi-curious hookups where you wake up tomorrow and decide you like men better, after all?”

Devon considered her answers and settled on honesty. “I don’t have a good answer for that. I just like you.” And she did, though not the way Hester would have wanted.

“You’ll do,” Hester said in her dry way.

Devon laughed and hoped it didn’t sound hysterical. You’ll do was a phrase she had sometimes said to herself, when eyeing up potential victims. Mentally, she echoed the phrase back: You’ll do for Cai. One last meal to lift him out

of hunger before hitting the road again.

They finished their drinks and left the bar together, though not before Devon stopped to pick up a bottle of vodka for the road. She would need a drink after tonight’s debacle, for certain.

“Is your house far?”

“Just a flat, not a house, and no. Above the tire shop—down that way.” She gestured vaguely. “You’ll like it.” Such a lie.

Hester touched her arm. “Aren’t you cold? Do you want to go back for your coat?” and Devon realized she’d forgotten, in her haze of alcohol, to keep her jacket on.

“I’m from the north,” she said, like that was a sensible answer in this subfreezing weather. “I grew up on the moors, it gets very cold out there.”

“Really? The moors? How romantic!” Hester shivered into her fur-lined coat. “Next you’ll be telling me you grew up in a manor, like something out of Wuthering Heights.”

A twang of alarm rang through Devon’s head, a sense that the comment was yet again too close to home, but she was tipsy and couldn’t not laugh. Besides, what was she afraid of? Hester was human.

Ten minutes later she veered down the alley toward the entrance of the little flat. They walked up the steps in odd silence, Hester waiting while Devon unlocked the door. Both women entered the tiny, dingy flat with its cracked paint and shabby, last-legs furniture.

The door to Cai’s room was flung wide and he was visible from the living room, sitting on his bed with a magazine open on his lap. He lifted his head and said, “I thought you didn’t like bringing women back.”

Hester stopped in her tracks. “You have a child?”

Devon took advantage of the distraction to lock her front door with quiet movements. “Sorry. This is my son, Cai. He’s very direct.” She found herself oddly grateful that the other woman didn’t comment on her son’s lisp. Cai was sensitive about it.

“Has he been on his own this whole time?” Hester said. “Where’s your babysitter?”

“He doesn’t need a babysitter,” Devon said, because it was true. A boy with the accumulated minds of twenty-five adults was perfectly capable of looking after himself for a few hours.

“I’m fine on my own.” Cai put his magazine down on the mattress and slipped off the bed. He crossed the threshold into the living room, drifting soundlessly on the thin carpet. His arms were smeared with the skin cream that she’d bought him that morning.

Hester tensed, seeming to hold her breath. She twisted the strap of her purse.

“Feel free to have a seat.” Devon brushed past her son, heading for the bathroom.

There were few places to hide away in the cramped flat; every room was visible from the living space. But the bathroom had a door, at least. Devon could shut it behind her and not have to face what Cai was doing, not have to watch someone die. “Just . . . make yourself at home.”

“Oh, there’s no need.” That purse strap wound tighter and tighter. “Listen, I like you, but I don’t think I’ll stay very . . .”

She trailed off, looking again at the boy who approached her. They were a strange and haunting pair: a pale waif of a lad, hunger burning beneath his skin like fever; and petite, hazel-eyed Hester, lips pinched with alarm.

Devon turned around, one hand on the bathroom door. “Can I ask you something? Are you a good person? Are you kind?”

Hester blinked, dragging her gaze from boy to woman. “Come again?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Cai spoke unexpectedly. “None of us are good. Only God can forgive.”

That fucking vicar. Tangled anger knotted her chest.

“I seriously doubt God can do anything,” Devon said, tight-lipped. “But if you’re satisfied, then fine.” She shut the door hard.

A muffled shout from the other room. Followed by a growling noise, and Hester yelping. Then that hideous silence that congealed like stagnant blood.

Devon didn’t feel anything, and never did in the moment when they were being consumed. Afterward would be bad. She slouched over to the sink and ran the tap to splash her face. Cold water to help sober her up.

Christ, what was she thinking, bringing back a young, attractive woman? How was she going to get rid of the body? It’d be far too suspicious to dump someone like Hester at the homeless shelter, especially given she’d left the vicar there yesterday. The towel scraped her face dry. It was old and tattered, like Devon felt.

Soft laughter came from the living room.

Devon froze, hands and face still damp. Someone spoke; Hester’s voice.

And Cai said something in reply with his soft lisp.

A curious thrill ran across the back of her neck. A thousand possibilities blossomed and she didn’t know what to hope for, what to reject. With dreamy slowness, Devon turned off the tap, hung up the towel, and pushed the door open.

Cai perched on the couch, the magazine he had been reading earlier open in his lap. He was tearing strips from it and putting them into his mouth with eyes wide. Hester sat next to him, watching critically with an approving smile as he scarfed pieces of paper.

Both of them looked up at Devon’s entrance.

Shock rolled over Devon, shot through with a pain of irrational jealousy. She’d never sat and eaten anything with Cai because he couldn’t eat books and how was he eating a book with this woman, this girl she’d met on a night out in Newcastle—

“Devon Fairweather, I presume? The infamous princess who murdered her husband.” Hazel eyes glinted. “Such an honor to finally meet you.”

Devon stared. “Who the bloody hell are you?”

“I represent Killock Ravenscar.” Hester touched the corner of her mouth with the tip of her tongue. “Why don’t you have a seat? I think it’s time we had a frank conversation. You know—woman to woman.”


Care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.

—Gailey

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