I received an ARC of this book for review via NetGalley.
If you follow along with my reviews and my blog, you’ll know I’m an exceptional sleeper. I am happy to nod off mid-sentence or mid-movie whenever necessary, so it’s rare for me to pick up something I’m willing to lose sleep over. I lost a LOT of sleep for Sin Eater, by Megan Campisi, and I have zero regrets. This book is excellent: I read it in one sitting (sorry, all other chores in my house).
May Owens lives in a just-slightly-left-of-historical Elizabethan England, where the recent religious purges and persecutions between Queen Maris (Mary) and Queen Bethany (Elizabeth I) are a constant backdrop of society. May comes from a lower middle class family, and she’s orphaned with no washerwoman work available. Starving, she steals a loaf of bread and winds up in jail.
Sentences in jail range from fines to torture and hanging and depend entirely on whether you have “respectable” witnesses to vouch for you, so May is sure she’s about to be hanged. Instead, she’s bound with a brass collar bearing an S pendant, and has a black S tattooed on her tongue: she’s sentenced to be a Sin Eater, a pariah of society who listens to the last confessions of the dying to take their sins into herself, carrying them until she dies. It’s a heavy burden for a young woman, and a lifelong sentence of silence and loneliness.
May finds the current sin eater in her town, and while they don’t speak she learns as much of the trade as she can by following along, until they’re called to the castle and the Sin Eater refuses one of the dishes set upon the deceased’s coffin. This sets off a chain of events that has May investigating a murder mystery, and discovering her own family secrets, and ultimately discovering she does have some control over her choices. The paths May travels lead her to exercise her own power in surprising ways, and to experiment with the ethics of her ancestry and her role as a sin eater in society. She’s one of the most interesting characters I’ve read in a very long time, and her story is wonderfully subversive and feminist as she repeatedly breaks societal boundaries for women and discovers the freedom within her sentence.
Campisi took the folklore of sin eaters (yes, they were a real thing, although not as powerfully influential in life as they are here) and the Catholicism vs Anglicanism culture wars of 1500’s England to a richly detailed fictional alternative. In May’s Angland, sin eaters have a very specific diet as each sin has it’s own specialized dish. All sin eaters are women, because Eve is the original evil in this society and women are all daughters of Eve. Because they are shunned and ignored, Campisi’s sin eaters can go places and see things common folk wouldn’t be able to, so May is a heroine of both tragic and powerful invisibility.
Campisi attends to every detail of Elizabethan England, and it feels like the characters are familiar enough to know and foreign enough to be fascinating, which is a perfect blend to keep a reader from putting a book down. Her writing is a lovely mix of poetic and practical, and the pacing of the book was fast. May Owens might be my newest favorite character, and I wish she had a whole series because I’m not ready to put her story away yet.
Sin Eater is a five star read: go get it asap.