There is no greater pleasure for a reader than to discover something new. The mythology and folk tradition in India has always had an insight into liminal beings. In The Devourers Indra Das molds these familiar themes into a fabulous new narrative that challenges and entertains the reader at the same time.
The events of The Devourers occur in two timelines. In present day Kolkata, professor Alok Mukherjee is approached by a man (who remains nameless for most of the book), who claims to be a “half werewolf”. Intrigued, Alok is drawn into a deeper connection with this stranger, who offers Alok the work of transcribing some documents. These documents make up the part of the book that transport the reader across time and space, to Mughal era Agra. Three European “werewolves” arrive at a caravanserai close to where the Taj Mahal is under construction. One of them, Fenrir, is captivated by a human woman, Cyrah and proceeds to rape and impregnate her. Demanding answers, Cyrah, accompanied by another of the werewolves, Gévaudan, follows Fenrir. This chase and its aftermath form the rest of this account.
However, The Devourers is more than a “werewolf” story. It is a celebration of the liminal, encompassing all those states of being that are more than one thing –be it djinns in a supernatural world, or gender identity and bisexuality in the real world. It is also a sensitive commentary on rape culture, patriarchy and masculinity/femininity.
To be honest, I found some parts of the book very disturbing. For example, Fenrir’s account of his raping Cyrah made me quite angry, and until Alok gave voice to my thoughts, I was seething.Disgust is a difficult emotion to play with as a writer. It must be written with enough power in it to make the reader look away for a bit, but not so much that the reader abandons the book altogether. Indra Das, in my opinion, walks this tightrope with ease. I would recommend the book with some trigger warnings for violence sexual, and otherwise.
It is this unpleasantness that makes the book a visceral experience. Like bitter chocolate, the joy lies in the difficulty to consume. It is an acquired taste. What makes it palatable is the author’s nuanced exploration of characters. The characters are wonderfully three dimensional and tangibly real. I especially appreciate how Cyrah has been written. She could easily have become a victim, or wronged damsel in distress, or physically violent avenger. However, Indra Das refuses to constrain her personality and she emerges as a well-rounded person. Also, the relationship between Cyrah and Gévaudan, in refusing to become a cliché, becomes a treat for the reader.
With his fresh perspective on shape-shifting lore, both from India and abroad, and vivid, descriptive writing, Indra Das builds his world on a solid base. The Devourers is a powerful, eloquent novel that attracts as much as it repels; that like its characters, resists being contained within any one box. To me, The Devourers is the must-read speculative fiction novel of the year.
The Devourers, published by Del Rey, is forthcoming on July 12th 2016.
FTC disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.
- The surreal quality, animalism and violence of this book reminded me of The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins.
- Part of this book is set near the construction site of the Taj Mahal. Madhulika Liddle’s Engraved in Stone, though a much different sort of book, also has parts of it set at the Taj Mahal’s construction site. Her recreation of Mughal era life is truly excellent.
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