I originally read The Dirt Eaters way back in grade school and it gave me nightmares, the wake up in the middle of the night screaming variety. The world of The Dirt Eaters was a grim one, the main character Roan suffers a lot in the 320 pages it takes to tell the story and it was way out of my comfort zone. At the time the majority of the fantasy books I was reading either had a pretty positive feel to them (think The Lord of the Rings) or their dark themes went completely over my head (The Golden Compass). There was something about this story that got under my skin and stayed there for a long time after. Even after all these years I may not have remembered the exact details of the narrative, I knew that there was something here that deserved another read. After the recent nostalgia kick of the Golden Compass I figured now was a better time than any.
The Dirt Eaters takes place in a post apocalyptic future where the world is still reeling from a catastrophic event. Roan is a fifteen year old boy who’s village of Longlight is attacked by a pack of raiders. Roan watches his sister get carried off before he is knocked out cold only to wake up alone. This begins Roan’s adventure where he has to travel through a desolate wasteland, avoiding the Blood Drinkers, crazy cults and survive the elements.
Roan is a believable character who struggles with his identity. His village of Longlight had a strong belief in non-violence. Roan was taught never to raise a fist to another person. But after watching his village systematically destroyed he starts to question their ways, beliefs and values. Would his people have survived if they had known how to defend themselves? Roan is tossed into a world controlled by roving bands, where violence is a way of life. Throughout the novel he learns to fight and defend himself but he never truly abandons his respect for life and peace, though he struggles with the two ideologies.
The main antagonist in this novel is Saint. He is Roan’s supposed rescuer and the prophet of the Friend. After Longlight is destroyed, Saint brings Roan to his compound where he lives among the Brothers and begins the process of being initiated among them. During my first read through of the novel Saint was a completely unlikeable character for me. He was the monster that was stalking Roan who he could never escape from. Now I can see that he is a little more nuanced than that. Roan could have easily become like Saint, someone willing to do anything to achieve what he believes is right. He’s willing to get himself dirty to make a better world. That being said, his methods are evil and no matter what his intentions are, he’s still a monster.
The writing in The Dirt Eaters is very brisk, no time is wasted on colourful prose, each sentence is used to push the story forward. This means that then book never has a slow moment and the plot flies by at lightning speed making it a very easy read. At the same time the language can come off as a bit dry. Foon is known for his dramatic works, and that’s really noticeable in his writing. The dialogue is great, but his descriptions of the world that the characters are interacting with is minimal and reminded me of stage directions. This could be a little off putting for some.
Though the descriptions are sparse, I really love the world of The Dirt Eaters. It takes place in the not so distant future and manages to merge the fantastic with our world brilliantly. This novel does what Invasion of the Tearling tried to achieve with practically no effort. The fantastical elements are either pulled from mythology or grounded in scientific explanation. The desolate landscape, the mutated bugs and plants and certain sicknesses can be blamed on the chemical warfare from generations ago. It’s not hard to believe that something in this world could have been irreversibly changed to introduce a magical element to its existence.
The novel has the first book feel and it kept reminding me of an origin story, specifically a super hero origin story. A great wrong is done to the main character, who finds himself facing an enemy who mirrors himself in almost every way. He needs to take everything that he has learned to overcome this villain with the knowledge that someone or something worse is further down the line. I have little to no memory of what happens later on in the series, so it’ll be interesting to reread it and see if this super hero sense continues or develops into something else.
Overall I enjoyed my reread of The Dirt Eaters. It was interesting to see how my opinions of the book have changed over the years and in a way how I have changed. My love of creepy cults in books, weird and dangerous worlds and the heroic journey were all things that 12 year old me was showing an interest in. The bits that had creeped me out as a kid (the nethervines and the poisoned forest) I dealt with easily but other parts that had went over my head, (experimenting on children and the corruption of authority) rung true. I’m not going to lie, the mind control drug still made me super uncomfortable. At least that hasn’t changed.
The Dirt Eaters is a solid first book in a trilogy that deserves more exposure. The story would lend really well to a screen adaptation if it fell into the correct hands. Here’s hoping.