by Indra Das
Edited by Michael Braff
Review by Benjamin Wald
Del Rey Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781101967515
Date: 12 July 2016 List Price $26.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Indra Das' first novel, The Devourers is an original and intriguing take on the werewolf story. Werewolves, in this world, are nearly immortal flesh-eaters, whose second selves can take a myriad of shapes and who can absorb the souls and memories of their prey. With a unique and powerful style, complex characters, and bold exploration of issues of gender, violence, and power, there is much to like here, all the more impressive for a first novel. However, at the end of the day, the novel didn't quite work for me.
The story, set in Das' native India, begins with a seemingly chance encounter between Alok, a college professor of history, and a nameless stranger who claims to be half werewolf. Something about the stranger draws Alok in, and he becomes ever more entangled with the mysterious stranger, even as he begins to believe that the stranger is indeed supernatural. This story is interlaced with two flashback stories, both told on ancient parchments that the stranger gives Alok to translate. The first tells the story of a nomadic European werewolf named Fenrir who, against the laws of his tribe, desires to have a human child. The second is the story of Cyrah, the woman who Fenrir chooses to use to fulfill his desire.
It is impossible to discuss this novel without talking about its treatment of rape. Fenrir rapes Cyrah in order to have a human child, and although the description of the rape is not graphic or violent, it serves as the lynchpin of the plot. The use of rape as a plot device in fantasy novels is often criticized, and I worried that this novel would be no different, focusing on the perpetrators of rape and ignoring its victims, or reducing them to nothing more than victims. However, this novel does neither. The largest chunk of the novel is devoted to Cyrah's story, and her refusal to either ignore the harm done to her or to be passive in the face of it. She is the driver of the plot in her story, hunting down Fenrir in search of an accounting for what he has done to her, while being faced with the reality that she cannot match his power. Whether or not you think this treatment of rape is ultimately successful, it is in no way lazy or rote.
Das draws explicit parallels between Fenrir's rape of Cyrah, and his hunting and eating of human beings, and the violence and sexual abuse of men in general towards powerless women like Cyrah. Thus, instead of the werewolf representing brute overpowering sexual urges, as it does in many appearances in fiction, the werewolf here stands for the intentional and culpable use of sexual assault and violence by men under patriarchy. This is an interesting and original choice, but it also contributes to what I found the fatal flaw in the novel. The half werewolf stranger in the framing story is positioned as an ultimately sympathetic character--but he too hunts and devours human beings. In the end, the novel cannot overcome this central inconsistency. It asks us to appreciate and sympathize with the stranger's complex and excellently rendered pain at the life he leads, but it cannot square this with the fact that he is, essentially, a mass murderer. Worse, while he doesn't actually rape anyone, his treatment of women seems uncomfortably reminiscent of Fenrir's.
In the end, this flaw prevented the final half of the novel from fully hitting home. Despite this, Das is a very skilled author, and there is much to enjoy in this novel. I certainly look forward to his next novel.