RHC 2018: The Devourers by Indra Das

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (India).

Oh my goodness. This magnificent beast of a book. This beautiful, stinking, terrifying love story. Just go read it right now.

Okay. A college professor named Alok is approached by a mysterious stranger at a baul performance in Kolkata. The stranger claims he is “half werewolf,” and wants to share his story. After a tantalizing tale, he gives Alok two manuscripts and asks him to transcribe them.

If you’re thinking, oh, cool, an Indian werewolf version of Interview with a Vampire, you’re not exactly right, but if that sounds fun to you, you will enjoy this. Greatly. It’s hard to avoid Anne Rice comparisons. This, like Rice’s work, is a book where you see, smell, touch, and taste something in every sentence (and often something very unpleasant, at that). It is a very different sensory palette than the one that Rice uses, though, and Das has a very distinct style. It’s also a much more measured story than Rice’s sprawling multivolume epics, clocking in at just over 300 pages with generous amounts of white space.

That sensory palette includes a lot of excrement and rotting meat, incidentally. Das’s werewolves are messy.

Though they aren’t exactly werewolves. “Shape shifters” is the best term for them, and they encompass a wide swath of world mythologies, including werewolf, djinn, and rakshasa. They refer to their monster form as their “second self,” while their first selves are more or less human in appearance. They view themselves as a completely separate species, though, and take great offense at being confused with their prey.

While most the frame story takes place in modern Kolkata (and there are some wonderful descriptions of the city and its food), most of the book takes place during the rule of the Mughal Empire near the Taj Mahal, which is under construction. Seventeenth century Hindustan is an extremely cosmopolitan place, and people from all over the world collide with each other in its bazaars and alleyways.

The story begins when a ferocious Norse shifter who calls himself Fenrir (and may believe himself to be Fenrir) sees a beautiful Muslim woman from Khorisan named Cyrah. He becomes obsessed with the idea of creating something instead of devouring it, and instead of tearing Cyrah apart, he rapes her.

Before I lose you. There were so many opportunities for this to go hideously wrong. But the rape is never elevated beyond what it is, a ghastly act of violation. After about a hundred pages from Alok and Fenrir’s point of view, Cyrah takes over the story. She never forgives Fenrir, and she sure as hell never romanticizes what’s happened. The rape is necessary to the plot, but not to Cyrah’s character–Das builds that in other, more interesting ways.

Sexual assault in fantasy is frequently an offensively lazy way to be sure readers know a character is A Really Bad Dude or A Strong Female Character With a Difficult Past. That isn’t what’s going on this book, and Das handles the subject respectfully.

Now, at this point, it sounds like I’ve described the most cishet dark fantasy setup imaginable, and one that we’ve all seen played out over and over and over again. No no no. Gender, sexuality, and identity are incredibly fluid in this story, and it uses its own second self concept brilliantly as a way of underscoring that (it won a Lambda Award for best LGBT sf/f/horror). Just… read it.

The Devourers breaks a lot of rules, and it’s nearly impossible to describe. It’s frightening, bloody, romantic, and entirely engrossing, and I strongly recommend it.

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