REVIEW: THE DEVOURERS, BY INDRA DAS (2016)

TW: rape.

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 10.54.46The Devourers is a book about werewolves in India. Some of it is set in the present, and some of it is set during the Mughal era, specifically in the 1640s, around the time the Taj Mahal was about halfway done. When I first added it to my to-read list, almost two years ago, I guess I was hoping it would indulge me in some geo-historical literary tourism, and breathe new life into that furry old bag of tropes that is the werewolf. So I’d learn a bit about a place and a time I’m not incredibly familiar with, and also enjoy keeping track of the tropes the author kept, rejected, reinterpreted, and invented anew. Other than that, I guess I expected a fairly standard adventure plot. That would have been enough to make me happy–it’s basically what Silvia Moreno Garcia did with Certain Dark Things, her novel about vampires in Mexico City, which I thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, that is part of what I got from this novel–but The Devourers turned out to be so much more than what I was expecting.

First, though–I need to tell you about what happens in this book, without giving too much away. Alok is a lonely, depressed history professor living in Kolkata. One night, he is approached by a sexy stranger who claims he (the stranger) is half werewolf. The stranger gives Alok two manuscripts to read and transcribe. The manuscripts tell the story of three European werewolves who arrive in Mumtazabad, in the Mughal Empire, in the middle of the seventeenth century, and their encounter with a human woman, Cyrah. Both Cyrah’s life and the werewolves’ are forever changed by this encounter. There are brutal fights, declarations of love, an epic chase along the Yamuna river, and the blossoming of a beautiful friendship. And, as Alok reads and transcribes these tales, he keeps seeing the stranger, and their friendship turns into something more than just a friendship…

So–what makes this book so special? Two things, mainly.

Firstly, the writing is gorgeous. Don’t take my word for it–here are a few examples:

The day died like fire in the leaves. Gévaudan looked up at the sound of a howl in the distance, squinting at the sky as if it were parchment burned dark by a sun gone out, the stars emerging like the leftovers embers of scorched letters.

. . .

Monsoon has arrived again. The curtains billow with damp air like the sails of European ships tumbling on the crests of the Indian Ocean, using monsoon to take them to this far land and its foreign monsters and gods and goddesses.

. . .

The sun shatters through clouds clinging to the edge of the ocean, its million shining pieces flung across the leagues of water, carried from the crests of surf by wind and thrown to burn in her black hair, turning it bloody gold.

Even Das’s descriptions of werewolves feasting on corpses is oddly beautiful:

Under his blade, the precious bounty of the heart flowers into thick wet petals.

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 10.54.32(I was going to include a joke about how Das describes things so vividly he probably has extra-fine senses and may therefore actually be a werewolf, but it turns out this is not at all an original thought–in this interview with The Qwillery, Das reveals that loads of people joke about him being a werewolf.)

Of course, it would be exhausting if the whole novel was entirely written this way. Luckily, The Devourers does contain a mix of styles, reflecting the different time periods and the characters’ different personalities. The werewolves favour comically grandiloquent speech patterns and word choices, which befit both their venerable age (the oldest and most pretentious among them was became a werewolf in Ancient Greece) and the arrogance anyone would probably develop if they were an entire planet’s unrivalled apex predator. The humans are more straightforward and no-nonsense, and Cyrah, in particular, knows exactly what to say to deflate a werewolf who is waxing obnoxiously about the werewolf code or some horrific ritual or other.

The second thing that makes this book special is just how grown-up it is. Every time I’ve used the word “werewolf” in this review, I’ve cringed a bit because it sounds so silly, and The Devourers is anything but silly. The book’s key event–the event that sets everything else in motion–occurs when one of the werewolves, Fenrir, rapes Cyrah. But this is no gratuitous, exploitative Game of Thrones-esque “it’s gritty fantasy so it has to have rape” rape. In fact, it leads to a lengthy exploration of how even a “nice guy” can be a rapist. In the course of the novel, Fenrir provides so many excuses and justifications for what he’s done–he’s in love with Cyrah; werewolves can’t have children and he really wants a child; he was super-gentle when he forced himself on Cyrah; he didn’t use his mind control powers on her; he gave her money for her trouble; he’s always admired humans and really this was an act of love towards all humanity; he even apologised at the end and used his mind powers to give her a vision of how awesome motherhood is, to make her feel better about her impeding pregnancy–but none of this ever persuades the other characters to see him as anything other than a disgusting, pathetic rapist (in Cyrah’s words, “that coward monster, that filthy dog-man, that self-pityingly deceiver”), and they make that extremely clear to him every chance they get. Also–it’s worth noting that we read the rape scene itself from Cyrah’s perspective, not Fenrir’s. And, the morning after the rape, Cyrah decides to go look for Fenrir to confront him, so she can have the last word on what happened. Her journey along the Yamuna on the trail to confront Fenrir–and the story of her platonic friendship with her travelling companion, the werewolf Gévaudan–takes up the bulk of the book’s central section.

I realise, of course, that a man praising another man for how he writes about the experiences of a woman who’s been sexually abused does not necessarily mean much. But, for what it’s worth, Das really does seem to be equipped with the right degree of humility and awareness. In the book’s acknowledgements, he ends by saying

if I’ve made mistakes in portraying the viewpoints of people who belong to groups I’m not a part of, such as those who’ve experienced sexual abuse, I’m willing to listen and learn so I cam do better next time.

And in this interview, he says

The best way for a man to write women is to listen to women, read women, and treat women characters like human beings. You might still get it wrong, but it’s a start. The important thing is to respect that there is a difference between men and women—not because of biology, but because of the different experiences of living in a patriarchal world as a man and a woman (not to mention as someone who’s transgender or genderqueer/nonbinary). Of course, Cyrah is a woman living hundreds of years in the past in a culture I’ve never lived in, so really, I only did the best I could.

And, also,

Slipping into the mindset of a rapist is disturbingly easy, because our cultures support rapists, enable them at every turn. I mean, you see their voices every day, all over the internet, in comments sections, on social media, in terrible articles. Many of these voices aren’t of people who’ve raped anyone, but they represent rape culture as a whole; they openly and eagerly speak for toxic masculinity and the entitlement that comes with it. You’ll have pathetic, terrible men openly threatening to rape and kill women they don’t know because of something said women tweeted about feminism. Fenrir is a more literate and thoughtful version of those assholes.

On a lighter note, this book also include one of the most satisfying, beautiful and complex stories of platonic love (between Cyrah and Gévaudan) I’ve ever come across in a novel, as well as some of the best passages describing (queer) desire (between Alok and the stranger).

So, to conclude–I can’t recommend this book enough. It is, perhaps, not for everyone–I can see how some may dislike its more ornately written sections and its more graphic descriptions of violence, and it’s certainly not the light romp one might expect when one hears the words “werewolves in India”–but, having waited two years to read it, I can say that it was more than worth the wait. It’s intense and bloody and bold and beautiful, and, if it sounds like your kind of thing, you should sink your teeth in it the first chance you get.

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