Sin Eater, by Megan Campisi

In Sin Eater, Megan Campisi took two ideas from our history and spun them into a strange thriller. The first idea, the sin eater, was a rare custom that involved literally eating bread and salt to figuratively take on a dead person’s sins. The second idea comes from rumors that hint that the Virgin Queen might not have been all that virginal before she took the throne. May Owens’ world is very similar to ours, but the names are just a little bit different, just enough to be uncanny. That said, the drive to keep secrets in order to preserve one’s power is clearly universal.

May Owens’ normal life ended when, for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread while starving, she is sentenced to be a sin eater. Sin eaters, in May’s Angland, means that no one will speak to her and will pretend that they do not see her. The only time people will talk to her is to summon her to the bedside of a dying person, to hear their sins and match them to the foods she will need to eat later to take their sins into herself. Even her mentor, an older sin eater, won’t speak to her. It’s a lonely, confusing life.

Because everyone needs a sin eater, May and her mentor are one day summoned to the castle of Queen Bethany. Her governess is dying and must recite her sins for the sin eater. This woman’s abrupt death and the strange events that follow leave May alone and in danger. Her mentor is whisked away to be tortured for her secrets. Other women who attended the queen before her ascension are poisoned just like the governess. May can’t find any allies because everyone she might talk to runs the other direction. How can a girl forbidden to talk to anyone, who can’t write, tell anyone that she’s discovered treason and murder?

Sin Eater may be triggering for readers with disordered eating. To be honest, I got uncomfortable with the descriptions of how the sin eaters have to gorge themselves to ritually take on the sins of people wealthy enough to get creative with their bad behavior. For me, it wasn’t so much the amount or varieties of food the sin eaters had to eat, it was the idea that these women had no choice but to absolve people for the price of a meal (however big). What I felt for May and her mentor was a lot like the feeling of disgust and disappointment I felt when I learned about papal indulgences. (Clearly, some parts of Lutheranism resonated with me, even 400 years too late.) It really bothers me that money—or food, in this case—can be used as an easy way out of perdition for people who refuse to genuinely atone for their sins.

Sin Eater is a vivid novel of treachery and poverty. While this book has fantastical elements and recasts English history, it feels incredibly real. I ended up enjoying it quite a lot, even though it disturbed me as much as it entertained me. I would recommend this book to readers who like history-based fiction that doesn’t just ask, “What if,” but shouts it and runs off down an interesting side street.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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