In my reading habits, I do not read too much fantasy. I have never been a fan of high fantasy, those works that are set in an alternate world. I struggled with The Hobbit for years before finally managing to get through the audio book last year, for example. I do better with “low” fantasy, stories set in the recognizable world which include magical or mythological elements, which is where books like Daughter of Smoke and Bone work much better for me. The Devourers, our Fantasy book club pick, should fit into that niche as well, but it really felt genre-defying while I was reading. I described it as historical magical realism in the book club chat, which is something that falls into fantasy, like The Night Circus, which I love, but this book is also working with some larger themes that felt much more akin to lit fic.
The rest of this review is going to jump around a bunch, be warned.
The book has the structure as a story within a story. Our entrance into the larger world of werewolves/shapeshifters is Alok. Alok is a history professor out for the evening when he meets the character who will be known throughout most of the book as the Stranger. The Stranger introduces himself as half-werewolf, hypnotizes Alok with stories of his past, and in a promised second meeting convinces him to transcribe a translation of scrolls for him. The scrolls tell the stories of Fenrir, Gevaudan, and Cyrah.
All that to say that Alok’s first interaction with the stranger made me think the book was dumb. It was not, but its framing device is possibly the weakest part of the entire novel. The book was strongest during the Cyrah centered section in the middle, but the constant POV switching early in the book led me to do a lot of skimming. This, as well as some of the other weaknesses in this book feel like debut novel mistakes to me. Das was going to show us all his tricks up front, but instead it made the beginning of the book simultaneously dense and barren.
Fenrir and Gevaudan are the stories prominent shapeshifters, I felt Das positioned Fenrir both the poster boy for toxic masculinity and a complete denial of self-acceptance and knowledge. Unfortunately, I thought the structure was god-awful. The reader is presented the Alok section, and then Fenrir post rape, and then Fenrir pre rape just made for an unwelcome entry into the larger ideas of the narrative.
Das makes a big and interesting leap in his werewolf/shapeshift story by tying together several different mythologies into one larger myth. It works, but I feel like Das was dropping bread crumbs, or assuming more knowledge on his reader’s behalf than I actually had, which left a lot of unanswered questions and possibilities. The book comes in right around 300 pages, so there was room to expand into the mythos, and specifically spend more time on Cyrah from her own point of view. I wish Das was a little clearer, a little stronger in his world building.
Also, Das works identity throughout the novel and there’s an interesting concept to a second self creating a hermaphroditic nature, but then why default Male? That’s where Das lost me, and even being presented with a shifter who defaulted female did not solve my issues since she (like a lot of how Cyrah was treated) was focused entirely on her ability to mother/nourish. There could have been more here.
The werewolves used their non-humanness as a shield, as a way to protect themselves from any identity attributes that don’t fit into the accepted. Throughout the novel the very behaviors and emotions they are disavowing as human as the ones they are demonstrating. I also was struck by Gevaudan’s struggle with keeping true to his second self’s nature, but his obvious care and affection for others, which should have been something that didn’t happen. Gevaudan presents his arguments against Fenrir as “love is stupid and humans are stupid”. But, Gevaudan is in love with Fenrir and then forms a years long close emotional bond with Cyrah. But again, Das doesn’t completely follow through.
I would like to take a moment and sing the praises of Cyrah: she was amazing. Initially I was concerned that Das would blow the landing on a character first introduced by her rapist, but she’s complicated and angry, hard and fragile. The character overcame my low expectations. Cyrah’s honest appraisal of her situation, both in the micro of the rape and the macro of her life situation made her a fantastic character. Unfortunately, I just don’t think the book served her well. The reader doesn’t get to read more about her and how her friendship with Gevaudan developed after Fenrir leaves for the final time. How did she end up becoming this sort of jungle goddess? Why did her life need to end the way that it did, and what point was there in taking that much strength and power into one being?
Finally, at the end when Alok starts exploring his own gender fluidity I was left more confused than anything else. Perhaps I simply missed the signposts that Das had laid in, I had assumed that his bisexuality was enough for his fiancée and family to shun him, but apparently, I was supposed to see this coming. Again, I think Das tried too many things, all good ideas, but he just couldn’t balance it properly He needed more pages to do all the things he was attempting. However, I don’t know that I wanted to read more pages.
I think the best parts of the book are when the various main characters -across the multiple timelines- are ruminating on what their lives mean. Cyrah is vested neither in dying or in staying alive, based on her life experiences. Fenrir and Gevaudin are struggling with staying within the stereotypes of their werewolfness. Alok and the stranger are finding their own ways to survive, and Alok is working through the fluidity of his wants and needs. This is all so interesting.
3.5, rounded down.