Published by Del Rey on July 12 2016
I started reading The Devourers with very little knowledge of the story, as I usually try to avoid re-reading the story synopsis when I start something new. And so I wasn’t quite prepared for such an unexpected combination of stunning writing and visceral imagery. This is a tale about werewolves, but they aren’t the sort you might be familiar with. Das’ beasts don’t simply kill humans for sport, they actually devour them down to the bones (hence the title), and then they take the smallest bones and weave them into their hair and skin as decorations. The actual transformation from human to “second self”—what the werewolves call their changed state—is told in vague descriptions that let each reader come to their own conclusions about exactly what these beasts look like.
The Devourers is all about stories, and Das has constructed a fascinating story within a story. It takes a little time to figure out just what’s going on, so the beginning felt a little slow. But this should by no means turn you off this book. I’ve always enjoyed this method of storytelling, and Das is devilishly brilliant at it. The story begins in Kolkata, India, with a chance meeting between two young men. Alok is enjoying an outdoor music festival when he catches the eye of a rough and dirty looking man who nonetheless exudes an odd charisma. The man, named Izrail, tells Alok that he is a half-werewolf, and after talking for a bit, Izrail hires Alok to transcribe his journals. Intrigued by this odd man, Alok agrees to the job, and begins typing up the hand-written pages.
The story within these pages unfolds as another werewolf named Fenrir describes meeting a poor Muslim girl named Cyrah, who he rapes (for reasons that are explained later) but spares her life. Afterwards, he returns to his traveling companions, two other werewolves named Makedon and Gévaudan, only to discover that Makedon knows what he’s done and has decided to kill him for breaching the strict laws of their tribe (werewolves aren’t allowed to have sex with or procreate with humans).
Later, Izrail gives Alok another story to translate, and this time the story is from Cyrah’s point of view, the human girl who Fenrir raped and who is now pregnant with his child. Cyrah’s story was the longest section of the book, and also my favorite, as she meets and joins Gévaudan on a terrifying and dreamlike quest to track down and confront Fenrir.
Finally, Izrail invites Alok to travel with him to the Sunderbans, the jungle where he grew up, and in order to tell Alok the final part of the story, Alok enters a trance-like state where he experiences everything that Izrail has been through. As the story progresses through each section, the reader will begin to see how Cyrah, Fenrir, Gévaudan and Izrail are connected.
The story gets progressively darker as it goes along, and while I was shocked by the ending, I can see after finishing the book that it made perfect sense. These are not young, fit werewolves with six-pack abs and dreamy eyes. These are fierce killers who dress themselves in animal pelts and pierce their skin with the bones of their victims. Das gives his werewolves a distinctly animalistic quality, describing their smell, their bloodthirstiness, and even the way they vocalize when in the skin of their second self. But still, it would be a hard book to love if the werewolves didn’t have some redeeming qualities. I came to love the relationship between Cyrah and Gévaudan, as Cyrah encounters the wild and unkempt second self of Gévaudan, who becomes her protector, going against his instincts to kill her.
And just in case you’re thinking you might be bothered by a woman being raped (which I completely agree is upsetting), the story wouldn’t be the same without this detail. The rape changes Cyrah’s life forever, but rather than let it destroy her, she rises above it with a fierce determination. Cyrah was a marvelous character who lacked privilege and literacy, but uses her intelligence to take advantage of her situation. I loved her outspokenness and her willingness to dive head-long into a situation that would terrify most people.
The story is partially based on Indian mythology, and the humans call the werewolves “rakshasa,” a demon from Hindu mythology. Although The Devourers is barely over three hundred pages, it had an epic feel to it, as the story spanned centuries, beginning with Fenrir’s life in seventeenth century India. In some ways, it reminded me of Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire, which is also a tale within a tale and has the same epic feel.
Das’ writing is frankly stunning. It’s so beautiful that it’s one of those books that makes me want to read out loud. (Now if only someone in my family would let me read to them!) But he tempers the beauty with the harsh language spoken by the characters, and with the act of devouring, which isn’t very pleasant, but seems oddly beautiful while Das is describing it. In one of my favorite scenes, Gévaudan and Cyrah must cross a river on their journey, and in order to get across, Gévaudan makes Cyrah ride on his back. I loved the author’s descriptions of his prickly fur, his tensed muscles and the sheer terror of being on the back of a beast, unable to do anything but hold on for dear life.
I’ve no doubt that The Devourers will be showing up on award lists next year. This is Indra Das’ first novel, and I can only imagine what amazing stories he has inside his head, just waiting to come out. This isn’t a fast or light read, by any means, but if you are looking for a powerful story that will give you chills with its carefully crafted imagery and wildly imagined characters, you can’t find a better book. Highly recommended.