You’ve never seen fantasy like this before: The One Who Eats Monsters by Casey Matthews

Posted 3rd December 2019 by Siavahda in Crescent Classics, Fantasy Reviews, Queer Lit, Reviews / 0 Comments

The One Who Eats Monsters (Wind and Shadow, #1) by Casey Matthews
Representation: Sapphic, F/F or wlw
on 25th August 2017
Genres: Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Pages: 378
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five-stars

Long ago, before history broke in half, elder gods exiled the vengeful deity Erynis to a far corner of Earth. When Ryn is found weakened after saving the life of an innocent villager, the U.S. military mistakes the battered immortal for a feral teenager and places her in New Petersburg, a decaying city full of monsters.

In her clash with the city’s demons, Ryn is confused by her intense emotional connection with Naomi Bradford, a senator’s daughter she has sworn to protect. But while her claws can kill anything that dies (and a few things that cannot), she must also contend with the human race. They lie, they speak in riddles, and to protect her friend, the immortal must navigate the senseless rules of their flawed civilization. Worse, they are fragile—and giving her heart to one makes Ryn afraid for the first time in her eternal life.

Sometimes when you’re dealing with monsters, what you need isn’t a hero.

It’s a bigger monster.

American soldiers rescue a teenage girl from torture, and bring her back with them to the United States. The problem? She’s not a teenage girl at all, and the rules that keep humans safe from her are null and void if she’s invited in to their cities.

It’s okay though. She might be a monster, but her prey are other monsters – of both the mundane and supernatural varieties. Normal, everyday decent people are perfectly safe from her – as long as they don’t get caught in the crossfire.

The One Who Eats Monsters is a really dark, really beautiful, and incredibly unique urban fantasy that a lot more people need to be talking about. When pitching it to someone looking for recs recently, I described it as: primordial, feral goddess falls in love with a human girl, because honestly, that’s all I’d need to hear if someone were recommending it to me.

Whatever you’re envisioning when you hear that, the reality will surpass your expectations – or your wariness, if you’re like me and aren’t interested in safe, pretty ‘monsters’ ala Twilight. Because Ryn – the eponymous one who eats monsters – definitely isn’t safe, and definitely isn’t a human with fangs tacked on; she really feels like something else, something completely alien, in a way few authors ever really manage when crafting non-human characters. Most of the book is from her perspective – third person, not first, which was definitely the right call – and she is just so completely Other. Honestly, Matthews hit the balance just right: Ryn never feels human, but her emotions and motivations and choices still make enough sense for the reader to connect to her. It’s a very difficult line to walk, but Matthews pulls it off exquisitely.

And what the hell does it mean, anyway, that Ryn is a goddess? Well, the answer to that was probably my favourite part of the book, because the worldbuilding here is incredible. Matthews has created an entire underground eco-system of spirits living alongside humanity, and while some terms might be familiar – asuras and daevas are beings from Hinduism and Zoroastrianism respectively, for example – Matthews puts entirely her own spin on things. Slowly uncovering more of Ryn’s history and abilities as the book goes on is an utter delight, as is bit by bit learning about the supernatural world she belongs to; although the story is set in the USA, we get tidbits about the gods and spirits in other parts of the world too, and the laws that bind them. More, we even get a glimpse of what lies beyond our world – and I admit to not being entirely sure if the other worlds referred to are meant to be other dimensions or other planets. (For the record, my bet is on the former). So much work and detail has gone into inventing Ryn and building the world she lives in, and I adored it.

Although it’s not all pretty. A large component of the plot is Ryn hunting down and facing off against a number of seriously fucked-up spirits, and although the vast majority of the real awfulness happens off-page, there’s definitely enough to make your stomach turn over. One of Ryn’s enemies, for example, is a spirit that was born out of a snuff-porn ring, and though nothing like that ever comes near the page, we know it’s happened. A more mundane monster is the ‘father’ of the group-home Ryn is placed in when she reaches the US, who’s sexually inappropriate with the girls in the home and clearly gearing up to molestation – it’s implied that he’s sexually abused girls who’ve since left. Spoiler: Ryn puts him through a wall, but I can still see it being triggering for some readers.

On the one hand, that makes it easier to deal with Ryn’s absolutely merciless response to these kinds of monsters; the bad guys are so unremittingly evil – without being caricatures, which is something I’ve never seen another author pull off successfully – that it’s kind of a relief when Ryn rips them apart. But readers who are uncomfortable with darker themes, or with gore, should definitely steer clear of this one, because Ryn doesn’t pull her punches, and neither does Matthews.

Honestly, there were a few points where I might have put the book down – if Matthews’ writing wasn’t so damn beautiful and seductive. It was a little reminiscent of reading Poppy Brite, in terms of gorgeous writing and horrific content – except that Brite puts all of the nightmares on the page and Matthews doesn’t quite. (For which I’m grateful!) But the writing really is stunning, and not just in the use of language, but also in showing us our world through Ryn’s eyes. I probably identified with her a lot more than I should have – some of her incomprehension as regards human customs and behavior might seem familiar to other autistic readers; it definitely did to me. But that same incomprehension, or lack of human experiences, can also be super endearing, like when Ryn tries chocolate for the first time.

Because – and this is important for so many reasons – Ryn is feral. This is not a book about a classical Greek goddess who’s been following humanity’s progress, and interacting with it/them, from day one. Ryn is a wild thing, a primal thing, who has never had much interest in humans except to purge them of rapists and murderers. She can’t read, she doesn’t understand dates, she’s never had chocolate. And this is why it’s okay that she falls in love with a 16-year-old human girl, why this relationship doesn’t fall into the same dodgy areas as immortal/mortal romances usually do – because in terms of human life experiences, Ryn’s no older than her favourite mortal. She’s not suave, wealthy, and struck with the ennui of having tried everything in the world and being left with nothing else to live for; she’s awkward, uncomfortable with emotions, animalistic (in the real way, not the prettified, sexy way), and completely and beautifully self-contained. She doesn’t need anyone, doesn’t need the approval of others – she’s whole within herself, which is something I absolutely adore about her.

And she looks like a 16-year-old girl. Sorry-not-sorry: reading her smacking down every human asshole who thinks they can use or abuse her because that’s what girls are for was cathartic, hilarious, and freaking amazing. Also? She has good, tactical reasons for taking the form she does, which I loved as well.

So how about the actual plot? Like I said, Ryn is brought from the wilds (it’s not clear exactly where, but I got the impression it was Africa or possibly the Middle East) to the USA. Since she looks like a teenager, she goes into the foster system and high school, but thankfully, this is not one of those supernatural-creature-in-human-school stories – Ryn is far more interested in establishing her territory and purging it of the kind of monsters she hates than she is in keeping up her GPA. In the process, she stumbles across Naomi, who is the daughter of a Senator (and look, I never thought I would like a Republican Senator, even a fictional one, but Matthews made me like him) and is being targeted by the kinds of dark spirits Ryn doesn’t permit to exist. What originates as a plan to stay close to Naomi-as-monster-bait gradually develops into a kind of friendship, and eventually a fledgeling romance. Which only raises the stakes for Ryn, who grows very different reasons for keeping Naomi safe.

I wish I knew how to talk about the romance. I wish I could put into words how I feel about it. Naomi believes she’s straight, but when she finally faces her feelings, and the reality of Ryn’s nature…it’s an incredibly beautiful scene with this delicate, dark sweetness to it that made me catch my breath; it’s impossibly intimate and speaks to something deep that I can’t quite verbalise. I can only plead with you to go and read the book yourself, if you don’t mind the dark themes.

This isn’t just one of the best books I’ve read this year; it’s one of the best books I have ever read. It’s lyrical and lush and vicious and cathartic, it’s queer and magical and incredibly original, it’s delicate as spun sugar and sharp as steel. It’s perfect, and I don’t use that word lightly for books. It’s impossibly, breathtakingly perfect.

This one is staying with me always.

five-stars

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