July 12 2016
A mysterious man walks up to a quiet college professor one night at an outdoor festival in Kolkata. He is androgynous and charming, smoking a cigarette. The professor is intrigued and a little scared. Then the stranger says, “I’m a werewolf.”
This is how Indra Das’ The Devourers opens, more or less, and the adventure strolls at a leisurely pace from there. This is a werewolf tale for the artsy set. It’s violent and sometimes sexy, but without all of the genre trappings of a paperback werewolf story. Not to say that pulpier works are bad, but rather that this book is not that. It can be a little slow; it’s definitely more contemplative than heart-racing.
The stranger–you don’t know his name until almost the end of the book, although you guess at his identity before then–wants Alok, the college professor, to transcribe these mysterious scrolls for him. There are two scrolls, both made of human skin, telling the stories of a band of werewolves. One werewolf in particular, Fenrir, wants to become more human or at least try to remember his humanity. When the shapeshifters eat a human they retain their memories and even their characteristics, like languages. But the shapeshifters don’t reproduce sexuality; they only turn humans into shapeshifters. Fenrir, however wants to create.
So he decides to rape Cyrah, a poor prostitute.
At this point in the book, I admit I got a little nervous. I don’t particularly like stories of rape and while it wasn’t explicit I still didn’t want to read it. But Das did something that shouldn’t be so surprising and interesting: He let the rape remain rape. I’ve read plenty of books or seen shows where a character is raped, but by the end of the story, she’s realized how much she loves her rapist. And then suddenly she’s just been romantically “ravished” and not raped. I hate those stories, because I think rapists use that narrative as another way to justify what they are doing, thinking that a victim will “come around” or “learn to love” their rapist.
But Cyrah is angry and she stays angry the whole book. Das continuously refers to the act as rape almost to the point where I was getting fatigued. I didn’t need to be reminded every page that it was rape. I knew it was, but at the same time I appreciated how Das never let the reader forget that this was a horrible act, even if Fenrir thought he was doing good, doing something “creative” by doing it. In fact, Das even has an author’s note at the end of the book specifically stating that if he’s made mistakes in writing about sexual assault that he wants to listen, learn, and do better.
Cyrah falls in with one of Fenrir’s tribe, Gevaudan, as they pursue Fenrir to make him atone or at least account for his act. As Alok is transcribing the scrolls he finds himself falling for the stranger. What is his connection to the scrolls, if any? And what are his motivations in seeking out Alok?
The book is a study in the slow burn not just in the long road to justice for Cyrah, but also in the consummation of feelings between Alok and the stranger. The fact that Alok is bi–once being engaged to a woman, but also sleeping with fellow male professors–subverts the werewolf trope in an interesting way. Alok’s different kind of maleness in a book that features the rippling muscles and hard cocks–there are a lot of cocks–of the werewolves makes for an intriguing change.
The world building was also fascinating. The idea of the global shapeshifter story being interpreted by different cultures in different ways–the werewolf, the ifreet, the djinn–was well done. I also appreciated that it was a fantasy book set not in the European trappings of many works, but rather in modern day India and during the Mughal Empire, as I’m always interested to learn a little bit about different times, places, and cultures, even through fiction.
The novel reads slowly, but not in a bad way. It’s a book that took me a while to read, not because I wasn’t interested, but just because it seemed to call for a leisurely read. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, plot driven romp, this is not the book for you. Rather, if you want a book that requires you slow down and contemplate the nature of shapeshifting, the connection between consumption and consummation, and maybe even make you interested in India in the 1600s, this book is for you.