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Excerpt: The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean

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cover of The Book Eaters by Sunyi DeanSunyi Dean’s The Book Eaters is “a darkly sweet pastry of a book about family, betrayal, and the lengths we go to for the ones we love. A delicious modern fairy tale.”— Christopher Buehlman, Shirley Jackson Award-winning author

Truth is found between the stories we’re fed and the stories we hunger for.

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.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean, on sale 8.2.22.


2

A PRINCESS OF THE MAGIC LINE

TWENT Y-TWO YEARS AGO

She was a princess of the magic line. The gods had sent their shadows to her christening.

—Lord Dunsany, The King of Elfland’s Daughter

Devon was eight years old when she met her first human, though she did not realize what he was at the time. Or rather, she did not realize what she was.

Growing up, there had only been the Six Families, scattered across different regions of Britain. Devon’s family was the Fairweathers, whose North Yorkshire estate was wedged between low-lying hills and wild moorland. Uncle Aike was the patriarch of their manor because he was the wisest, even though he was not the oldest. Under him were a succession of other aunts and uncles ranging from barely adult to discreetly ancient.

And under them were the seven Fairweather children, of whom all except Devon were boys. There were very few women around, for girl-children were rare among the Families. The uncles outnumbered the aunts, just as the brothers outnumbered their sister, and no brides were in residence at the time. Devon’s own mother was an unremembered face, having long since moved on to another marriage contract.

“You’re the only princess in our little castle,” Uncle Aike would say with a wink. Tall and gray-haired, he enjoyed folding his lanky frame into comfortable chairs and drinking copious quantities of inktea. “You get to be Princess Devon. Just like in the fairy tales, eh?” He would make a little flourish with his hands, a smile crinkling up the corners of his mouth.

And Devon would laugh, put on a crown made from braided daisies, and run around the yard in her tattered lace dress shouting I’m a princess! Sometimes, she tried to play with the aunts, because if she were a princess then they ought to be queens. But always, the older women withdrew from her with anxious glances, rarely leaving their own bedrooms. Devon eventually decided they were boring and left them alone.

The house itself was a ten-bedroom building, three stories high. It might have been quite ordinary for manors of that type if not for the haphazard collection of parapets, extensions, tile roofs, and Gothic flourishes. (“Courtesy of your great-uncle Bolton,” Uncle Aike had said once. “Architecture was his, ah, treasured pastime.”)

Beneath the ground, more levels sprawled with delightfully twisted passageways. Devon knew every nook and corner, from the dark sublevel halls to the sun-filled music rooms of the upper floors

And the libraries. Like the other Families, the Fairweathers had libraries with a flavor all their own: vintage books stitched from carefully aged leather— the darker, the better—with textured, embossed covers. When opened, the brown-edged pages flaked in soft, dry puffs, smelling faintly of March rain. One bite and Devon’s bookteeth could sink straight through those covers and chewy strings of binding, tongue alive with the acidic tang of ink-tinged paper.

“Biblichor,” Uncle Aike liked to say, rolling the word in his mouth. “That is a word that means the smell of very old books. We love biblichor, here. And other old things.”

“Everything in the house is old,” Devon giggled. Like the paintings in the downstairs dining room; four hundred years old, apparently. “I think you’re very old!”

Uncle Aike always laughed, was never offended. “Maybe I am, princess, but you’ll never make it to my age with that tongue of yours!”

That tongue of yours. Lots of people commented on Devon’s tongue. She stuck it out, sometimes, inspecting it in the mirror. There was nothing special about her tongue that she could ever see.

The land they lived on stretched vast to the eyes of a child. Rocky hills couched moorland, full of hollows and peat bogs. In summer, when the moors bloomed purple with heather, Devon chased rabbits and grouse birds. Twice she found otters, whose little fangs looked like her own growing bookteeth. In winter, the grass dried up and crisped with frost. She built snowmen with her brothers and they ran together, ever barefoot, through the hillocks and valley forests.

And then, one January morning, eight-year-old Devon went out on her own in search of snow buntings and red fox vixens. She had heard the foxes barking in the night and hoped to catch a glimpse of one scampering across the snow, like flame racing across paper.

She’d hardly gone three hundred yards, crossing into the small wood behind the house, when an unfamiliar noise snagged her attention. Someone was crashing through the trees and snow with loud, clumsy steps. No one at Fairweather Manor walked so heavily and Devon, intrigued, went to investigate.

A man she didn’t recognize slogged and huffed through freshly fallen snow. He was of indeterminate Adult Age, with dark hair and warm brown skin, his chin fully bearded. A curling black moustache framed his nose. Weirdly, he wore heavy boots, long trousers, funny knitted things on his hands, and bizarre puffed clothes that buttoned up to his chin. Another knitted thing sat on his head.

It took her a moment to recognize his gear as gloves, coat, and hat. They were things she knew from stories but had never seen on a real person. He looked so different from adults on the estate, who were rather paler and mostly dressed in dusty old suits. She wondered if he might be a knight of the Six Families, but knights usually traveled in pairs, on motorcycles, with a dragon in tow. He had no partner and no dragon and definitely no motorcycle.

She circled behind and tapped his shoulder.

“Hi,” she said, and snickered when he nearly fell over with shock. How had he not seen her? All that fabric must have muted his senses.

“Holy—!” He checked himself, took a breath. Frost dusted his dark sideburns, and the hems of his trousers were soaked from melted snow. “Where did you come from, little one?”

Devon was utterly delighted. It’d been at least two years since she’d managed to sneak up on anyone. “Are you one of my cousins?” She skipped around him in a circle. “I haven’t seen you before. Why aren’t you in a car? I thought all the cousins came in cars.”

“Cousin? No, I don’t think so.” For some reason, he kept staring at her bare feet and knees, and her sleeveless linen dress. “Aren’t you cold, love?”

She stopped in her tracks, puzzled. “What do you mean?”

She knew about cold from eating all the right books. Cold was what made snow happen, instead of rain, just like in the Snow Queen story

It was snowing now, light flakes landing on her arms and filling in her footprints. And it felt different from heat: balmy, instead of spikey. But cold was a part of the world and its seasons, a sensation detached from reaction. Not something that you had to do anything about.

“Strong kid,” he said, eyebrows raised. “To answer your question, I’m not a cousin. I’m a guest, I suppose.”

Now that, Devon understood. “You’re very rude, then,” she said, hands on hips. “If you really are a guest to the house, you’re supposed to tell me who you are and where you’re from.”

She knew that non-Cousin people existed in the world: humans, who ate animal flesh and dirty plants plucked from the soil. But guest or not, Family or not, everyone had to show what Uncle Aike called basic courtesy.

“Is that so?” A tentative smile. “Very well, my apologies. I’m Amarinder Patel, or ‘Mani’ for short. I’m a journalist from London. Do you know London?”

Devon nodded. Everybody knew London. That was where the Gladstones lived, far down south. They were the biggest, richest, and most powerful of the Families. She’d met some of their visiting cousins once.

“And you are?” Mani’s smile stabilized, became more genuine.

“I’m Devon Fairweather of the Six Families,” she informed him. “All of this land belongs to Fairweather Manor.”

“The Six Families?” he echoed.

Devon gave up being polite. “What’s a jerna . . . jernaliss?” If he wasn’t going to do the right words, then neither would she.

“Jour-na-list,” he said, with slow emphasis. “The investigative kind. That means I do research and go chasing strange stories. Sometimes, the things I discover appear on the telly. Isn’t that exciting?”

“What’s the telly?”

Another pause, shorter this time. He was learning to hide his surprise. “Devon . . . interesting name, by the way . . . I actually came here in search of your family. There are rumors about a remote clan living in the moors. I was hoping I could write a story—”

“A story? Like, a new one?” Devon was immediately interested. “Can all jour-na-lists write stories?”

“Well—”

“Will you write one just for me?” Questions burst from her in an excited flurry. “Can I eat it when you’re done? I’ve never had a story written for me to eat!”

The smile slid from his face, like melting snow from a roof. “Eat it?”

“Is that how stories are made? I always wondered but Uncle Aike said he’d tell me when I was older. How do you write a story? I can’t write a story. Will it be a book when you’re finished? Do all stories become books?”

“You can’t write?” he said, bewildered.

“Huh? Of course not!” She goggled at him. “How can we write?” If book eaters could write, they wouldn’t need other people’s books. The uncles had told her that.

Mani let out a slow breath. “I see.” He turned up the collar of his coat. “Do you have a mum or dad?” When she looked confused, he added, lips twisting, “Someone who looks after you. A grown-up.”

“Oh. D’you mean Uncle Aike?” Devon said, trying not to let her disappointment show. Uncle Aike got all the visitors. “I guess I could take you to him.” She knew the stranger wouldn’t be wanting to see the aunts, because nobody ever wanted to see the aunts.

“Sure,” Mani said darkly. “Let’s meet your uncle Aike.”

Devon skipped through the snowdrifts, disappointment giving way to selfconsolation. So what if the visitor wanted to see Uncle Aike? She’d found him first. Ramsey would be so jealous. Her other brothers, too, but she didn’t like them as well as Ramsey; most were much older and very boring and didn’t play with her so much. Anyway, she would rub it in Ramsey’s face all week. Maybe two weeks.

The forest thinned rapidly into rocky hills whose hard edges were softened with frost. The house unfolded into view, giving the illusion of a pop-up children’s book, the ancient parapets jutting uncomfortably against failing winter light. A few of Devon’s brothers were kicking a ball in the wild, overgrown gardens out front. None of them paid any attention to her except Ramsey, who looked over in pure astonishment. Devon took smug pleasure in his shock.

“No power source, no crops, no adequate clothing for any of the children. House in a state of disrepair, and the grounds look poorly tended. Yet they have modern cars on the drive.” Mani was muttering into a small black device with a red flashing light. “Can’t help but wonder what they eat. Insular and isolated, either way. Could these folks be the source of those old local legends?” He caught her staring and smiled disarmingly.

“Follow me!” Devon said, and tugged him, strangely reluctant, beneath the yawning archway into the entrance hall beyond.

A once-rich carpet lay tattered and flat over a rough-hewn stone floor. Crystalline light fixtures hung darkly immaculate, barren of candle or bulb. If they’d ever been lit, Devon had never seen it. The rooms they passed contained low couches or polished wooden tables, the chandeliers and lamps also unused. Walls were thickly lined with shelves, unending shelves. The scent of biblichor suffused everything.

She took a sharp left at the end of the hallway and skipped into the drawing room, Mani trailing after. Several of her uncles were gathered around a particularly large oak table, playing a game of bridge and drinking inktea. The moment Devon and her prize visitor walked in, all conversation ceased. Every head swiveled their way.

“Uncle!” Devon said. “I found a guest!”

“So you have.” Uncle Aike set down his fan of cards. “Who are you, sir?”

“Amarinder Patel, freelance journalist,” Mani said, and extended a hand. “I was looking—”

“This is private property.” Uncle Aike rose slowly. When not stooping, he stood over six feet. “You are not allowed to be here. Journalists, in particular, are not welcome.”

Devon looked on, bewildered. She had never seen her favorite uncle so unfunny. So lacking in Basic Courtesy.

Mani lowered his hand. “I’m sorry, I would have called in advance, but I wasn’t even sure you and your family lived here. There’s no listed phone number on the land registry, no names on the electoral register—”

“Quite so.” Uncle Aike leaned forward, knuckles pressed to the table. “Did it occur to you, Mr. Patel, that perhaps we have no wish to be contacted? Least of all by a journalist. Private citizens are entitled to private lives.”

The air seemed to thicken, stifling Devon’s questions. Something was happening that she didn’t understand, though nobody seemed to be mad at her.

Mani adjusted his glasses. “Very well, I’ll see myself out.”

But Uncle Aike pointed to an empty seat and said, “Nonsense. Done is done, and you are already here. Take a seat, please.” A muscle jumped in his cheek. “This is what you have come for, yes? To find the members of my Family? Well, come and speak to us, and we shall converse like adults.”

“I . . .” Mani fidgeted with his small black machine, turning it over and over in his hands. To the perspective of this fully human man, he had entered a dark and somber room lined with crumbling tomes and populated by looming, pale-faced figures in old-fashioned suits. Not a situation for the faint of heart.

But after a moment, his professionalism and rationality won out. Mani edged over and sat down, squashed between Uncle Bury and Uncle Romford.

“Dev, my dear.” Uncle Aike did not take his eyes off the journalist. “Go and play, yes? We will be a little while, having a chat with Mr. Patel.”

“But . . .” Devon glanced mournfully at the table, where her guest sat rigid. She always had to leave when the grown-ups talked, and it was never fair.

Uncle Aike shifted his gaze toward Devon, shoulders and face softening a little. “Tell you what. Take yourself up to my room, little princess, and find one of the special-edition fairy tales. But off the lowest shelf, mind. Nothing naughty, aye?”

“Oh! I will, I will!” Devon scampered out of the room in excitement. Though fairy tales were all she ever ate, some were better than others, and the special ones in her uncle’s study tasted exquisite: the crisp gold bindings, ribbon bookmarks, bright illustrations with multihued inks. An explosion of color and sparkles, words dangling and lingering on the palate.

The last thing she heard before darting up the stairs was her uncle saying, “Romford, shut that door, if you please.”

She forgot all about them by the time she reached the top of the stairs. Uncle Aike’s study occupied a smallish room on the east wing, and it was here she headed.

Devon slipped in soundlessly. These walls held Renaissance paintings and an eclectic selection of instruments, including a Chinese lute, none of which Devon had ever heard her uncle play. Gifts from ’eaters in other countries, back when traveling abroad had been a little easier. Too much paperwork, nowadays.

A desk and some chairs made for a cozy sitting area; a king-sized bed took up much of the remaining floor space. The windows had long since been boarded over on the inside and fitted with yet more shelves. The closest shelf housed multiple copies of various Arthurian legends; those were usually given to her brothers. Full of stories that girls didn’t need to know.

Below that was a row of fairy tales. “Beauty and the Beast,” “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Snow White.” Various others. All stories of girls who sought and found love, or else who fled their homes and found death. She could almost hear him saying, The lesson is in the story, my dear. That was the shelf her uncle had specified.

Devon had other ideas.

She dug out the little wooden stool her uncle kept under the bed and dragged it over. She could, if she stood on her toes, just reach the tallest shelf, which was much more exciting.

From this vantage point she couldn’t see what books were there, but it didn’t matter. All of those books were forbidden, and thus desirable. Even the most diligent of children got tired of the same meal, day in and day out; she couldn’t miss the chance to try something different.

Her fingers closed around the edge of a paper-bound spine and Devon pulled the book free, nearly losing her balance. Her uncle would be cross if he found out, and she might have to eat nothing except boring dictionaries for a whole week, but the excitement of something forbidden seemed worth the risk.

She sat on the stool and examined her prize. Jane Eyre was stamped across the binding in a perfunctory script. The red leather cover was embossed with an illustration of a young woman surrounded by flowers. The printing date meant that the author was long dead. A shiver ran through her. That words could remain, printed anew and afresh long after the original writer had died, never failed to amaze. Devon flipped it open at random.

Something of vengeance I had tasted for the first time; as aromatic wine it seemed, on swallowing, warm and racy: its after-flavour, metallic and corroding, gave me a sensation as if I had been poisoned.

How delightfully naughty, how ungirlish and un-princess-like! The idea that vengeance might taste like a particularly exciting book was deeply intriguing. This novel, whatever it was, would surely be far more interesting than the usual fairy tale.

She opened her mouth, teeth unsheathing—and halted. A strange urge came over her to not eat the book at all, but simply to pocket it. To read it, in fact, which was possible to do, if a little wrong.

Reading was a shameful thing. We consume written knowledge, her aunts and uncles had said so many times. We consume and store and collect all forms of paper flesh as the Collector created us to do, clothed as we are in the skin of humankind. But we do not read, and we cannot write.

Which was fine, except that everybody knew the Collector was never coming back. The book eaters would live and die without ever passing on their gathered information to the Collector’s unknowable data vaults. She couldn’t see the purpose behind their purpose.

Besides, taking a book from the top shelf was already wrong. It would not hurt to be just a little bit wronger.

One sin beget another; the decision was made in an instant. Devon stuffed the book inside her shirt to take it back to her own room, over in the western wing. She picked her way through the loft to the other side of the manor then climbed down, slipping into her room. By the time she’d read a chapter and hidden the stolen copy of Jane Eyre under her mattress, nearly an hour had passed.

She re-emerged into the hallway, straightening her dress and trying not to look criminal. The manor was very quiet, even for a wintry afternoon. The aunts were likely sequestered up in their quarters, from which they rarely emerged. The only sounds were the raucous yelling and shouting of her brothers milling outside but even that seemed muted, and more subdued than when she’d brought Mani through.

She jolted upright. The journalist! How had she forgotten about her guest? Devon took the steps two at a time and half sprinted back toward the drawing room.

But her guest was already gone. In fact, the drawing room was empty except for Uncle Aike, who sat by the fireplace with his feet on a stool. He looked up as Devon entered, and waved her over. “Come in, love. Have a seat.”

She snuggled into the chair next to her uncle. “Where’s the jour-na-list?”

“Mr. Patel is resting, in a room in the cellar.” Uncle Aike had the gentlest hands, never snagging or tugging as he finger-combed through Devon’s tangles. “Tomorrow morning, knights will come to take him away.”

“Away?” She had only met knights once. They’d been serious and scary, not at all nice or funny like her uncle. “Where to?”

To Ravenscar Manor,” he said, after a moment of hesitation. “It is near the coast, many miles from here. The patriarch there has a use for humans.”

“Oh,” Devon said, crestfallen that another house would get to steal her guest. “I wanted him to stay.”

“I’m sorry, princess. I know you did. But I’m afraid Mr. Patel was not a pleasant man. He wished to tell stories about us to other people.”

“Stories are good things. Aren’t they?”

“Not all stories are good things, no.” Uncle Aike kissed the side of her head. “You only have the right books to eat in this house, because we only give you the right stories, appropriate for a little princess. However, some stories are certainly bad, and your poor Mr. Patel would have written very bad stories.”

Devon mulled that over. “Does that mean he was a broken writer?”

“Of a sort.” He seemed amused by what she’d said. “Yes, that is a good enough description.”

“Oh, I see! Are the Ravenscars going to fix him, Uncle?”

“They certainly will, love,” said her uncle, gazing into the fire. “They certainly will.”

Copyright © 2022 from Sunyi Dean

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