Genre: Historical Fantasy
Publisher: Pan Macmillian
Release Date: 23/07/2020
Throughout this book, I found myself flipping between three and four stars. This book is a solid 3.5, I think, but I don’t do half stars so it gets rounded up to four.
May Owens doesn’t really know her place in the world. But before she can discover it, she is forced into the life of a Sin Eater, a person who cannot speak, but who must listen to the sins of the dying, then eat food to represent those sins, thereby taking on the sins for themself and absolving the dying so they can go to heaven.
Firstly, I would definitely class this as Historical Fantasy. It’s very loosely based on the Elizabethan Era, and grounded in the Tudor Period, but it’s a world of its own, with different folklore, religion and monarchs. Elizabeth, for example, is Bethany. It’s also worth noting that if this were more ‘Historical’ there would not be Sin Eaters in the unnamed…town? City? – where May lives. The area seems to be sort of London, but maybe not quite, and leaning more towards Fantasy gives the author free rein for a lot of areas.
By the way – Sin Eaters, in reality, were very much a Welsh and border counties tradition, but Campisi takes a lot of liberties with the tale, weaving in intrigue at the castle, a Northern nobleman, and various outcasts May becomes sort of friends with.
I said above this book has different folklore and religions, but it’s easy to spot their ‘real world’ equivalents. Through the book, Campisi touches on the treatment of various ‘outcasts’, including those who are disfigured, poor, or not part of the main religion in Angland.
I both liked and disliked the ‘alternative’ aspect of this book. It added something different, but for the most part so many things were the same it was hard to see why it needed to be set in an alternative world, rather than taking the Tudor Period and slipping in the more different aspects. But at the same time, the more original aspects of world building were intriguing, and enjoyable to read.
I found May to be really endearing throughout, especially with the nicknames she gives to various people she doesn’t know. She’s kind hearted, but quickly pushes back when shoved, and seeing her embrace her role was a lot of fun. As she cannot speak to people, she speaks to the various objects around her, asking them questions and listening to their answers, carving out some sort of company for herself when she can’t really have meaningful relationships with others.
Her inability to speak also means people are extremely comfortable discussing things around her, though this in parts did confuse me, as she could speak if she wished, she just isn’t supposed to. And there are times in the book when it gets frustrating, when it’s hard not to think, Just say something. Still, for the majority of the book, her inner thoughts are strong enough to keep the reader hooked, and May comes up with some inventive ways to get her point across to others.
It took me a little long to really get into this, partly because the setting was a bit distracting – it felt like an odd choice, to make such a simple mirror, and I struggled to loose myself in the story when I was questioning why the author set it in an alternative world when it could have just been set in the actual historical period, considering the parallels are so obvious.
Some of the book does feel a touch simplistic, and the worldbuilding is a mix of what feels like laziness, alongside some other really strong elements. Still, it remained an interesting story with some absolutely beautiful moments and language, and if there were other books following May’s story, I’d definitely be interested in reading them.