Alok shouldn’t trust the stranger he meets at a baul (a musical performance by Bengali mystics). The stranger tells him this more than once as he pulls Alok into the story of his past. Even though Alok is a history professor, he has to know more about the stranger’s story of werewolves, rakshasas, and a Mughal woman who was unfortunate enough to draw the attention of a monster. The Devourers, by Indra Das, is a strange history of creatures from folklore who are uncomfortable in all of their skins.
Though the novel is framed by Alok’s acquaintance with the stranger, who asks him to transcribe what he claims are ancient documents, the bulk of the novel tells the story of a werewolf who has learned to feel guilty for his killings and long for the love of a human. The stranger claims to be a half werewolf and his story is hypnotic to Alok. As Alok gets deeper and deeper into the stranger’s stories, he gradually shakes off his postmodern skepticism and take most of what the stranger claims at face value. More than anything else, he has to know what happens next.
In current contemporary fantasy, werewolves run a close second to vampires as objects of forbidden desire. In The Devourers, the werewolves (drawn from various folklores) really are forbidden. Their own laws prohibit them from having any contact with humans other than to hunt and eat them. And yet, Fenrir (who named himself after the wolf of Norse mythology) is fascinated by these short-lived beings. Unlike werewolves, humans can create. In India, during the construction of the Taj Mahal, Fenrir sees a woman who isn’t automatically terrified of his wild-looking, smelly self. The first document Alok transcribes is Fenrir’s tale of how he came to “love” the woman, Cyrah, and his desire to make a child with a human.
The second document contains Cyrah’s story. After Fenrir’s rape, she makes a deal with the werewolf’s former pack mate to track him down. She plans to make Fenrir suffer some kind of retribution, though she’d be the first to admit that she doesn’t know what that punishment will be or how she will mete it out. But as we’ve learned from Alok and the stranger, two people can’t stay in close contact and share their stories without learning to find what they have in common. Cyrah and Gévaudan (named for the region he came from in France, which would later suffer attacks from the Beast of Gévaudan) are enemies at first, then partners, then something like friends.
Most of The Devourers is violent and full of gore. (I lost count of the number of people who got eaten.) By the end of the novel, however, powerful themes about identity emerge. Though the werewolves have their own culture, some of them can’t forget that they were once human. They regret what they’ve lost. Once that happens, they can’t quite go back to being rapacious werewolves. (Well, they kind of can, but they feel guilty about it.) The Devourers is very much a story of beings stuck between cultures and worlds.
The Devourers is also about story and folklore. It’s possible to trace some folk tales to actual history. The stranger’s story is just like one of those tales. The real story is awful (in both senses of the word) and messy and full of mistakes. Over time, the rough edges get smoothed away and details get reshaped into a mythology of demons and protector goddesses and great, heroic drama.
I’ve heard raves about The Devourers since it started appearing in pre-publication alerts. Now that I’ve read it, I completely understand. This book is a blending of so many things I enjoy in fiction—history behind folklore, monsters being monsters, a setting that I’ve never been to in a novel before—that, even though it is very violent, I would recommend it in a heartbeat to adventurous readers.