The Sin-Eater – Megan Campisi

*I received a free ARC of this book, with thanks to the author, Mantle – Pan Macmillan and NetGalleyThe decision to review and my opinions are my own.*

Blurb: An old adage says there are really only two stories: a man goes on a voyage, and a stranger arrives in town. This is the third: a woman breaks the rules . . .

Can you uncover the truth when you’re forbidden from speaking it?

A Sin Eater’s duty is a necessary evil: she hears the confessions of the dying, eats their sins as a funeral rite. Stained by these sins, she is shunned and silenced, doomed to live in exile at the edge of town.

Recently orphaned May Owens is just fourteen, only concerned with where her next meal is coming from. When she’s arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, however, and subsequently sentenced to become a Sin Eater, finding food is suddenly the last of her worries.

It’s a devastating sentence, but May’s new invisibility opens new doors. And when first one then two of the Queen’s courtiers suddenly grow ill, May hears their deathbed confessions – and begins to investigate a terrible rumour that is only whispered of amid palace corridors.

Set in a thinly disguised sixteenth-century England, Megan Campisi’s The Sin Eater is a wonderfully rich story of treason and treachery; of women, of power, and the strange freedom that comes from being an outcast – because, as May learns, being a nobody sometimes counts for everything . . .

This is an alternative history story about women’s voices and murder; dark and rich, with a bitter undertone, like chocolate-covered coffee beans. (I wonder what sin those would represent?)

The worldbuilding is superb and perfectly conjures up the sights, smells and sounds of the rural villages and urban slums, as well as the receiving rooms of the middle, upper and royal classes. For that is the key to the unhappiness, but also the advantage, of the sin-eater’s lot. She may not speak, other than the rote phrases of her ritualistic role, but being shunned and ignored – feared – by every other human soul, gives her a strange kind of freedom to go where she wishes and ignore the rules that apply to those not already earmarked for Hell.

This idea of a woman being assigned to ‘eat’ the sins of the dying in a simple, yet very specific, ritual, and thereby freeing them for Heaven and damning her own soul a little more each time… it feels like dystopian fantasy, and yet also totally believable as actual historical fact. I was horrified and distraught for poor May as she received her terrible sentence, and amazed as she then went on to forge her own, almost-bearable path from it.

In addition to May’s journey of suffering and survival – as she fully believes that her eternal soul is lost to hellfire – is the additional intrigue of suspicious death in courtly circles, and May’s position as socially invisible puts her in the ideal position to be able to investigate events. After all, taking away her voice in the world still leaves her with her brain and her curiosity, and little to feast them on but the lives of other people! May’s character lived and breathed in my imagination as I read: from chattering child, to bitter, lonely young woman – proud and determined to survive despite her lot.

There are plenty of triggers throughout the story: animal cruelty; child abuse; sexual abuse; infanticide; sexual and physical violence; torture and, of course, murder. This is a dark tale of deprivation and cruelty but, never gratuitous, is also a story of comradeship, loyalty and unexpected kindness.

Megan Campisi explores how there can be power in the apparent helplessness of being feared and outcast. She also highlights the importance of human touch, acceptance, communication… of reaching out and being reached out to. These yearnings hit a particularly raw nerve during these times of pandemic, when we must keep our distance from loved ones from fear of a different nature. This current insight brought May’s plight into stark focus in a way that might not have moved me as deeply in different times, wrapped in the comfort of my own family and friends.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who loves historical fiction focused on those cast out from ‘normal’ society. Plot, characters, worldbuilding all combine to make this story unputdownable and utterly memorable.

Salt for pride. Mustard seed for lies. Barley for curses. There are grapes too, laid red and bursting across the pinewood coffin – one grape split with a ruby seed poking through the skin like a splinter through flesh. There’s crow’s meat stewed with plums and a homemade loaf, small and shaped like a bobbin. Why a loaf in such a shape? I think. And why so small? There are other foods too, but not many. My mother had few sins.

– Megan Campisi, The Sin-Eater

Find more from Megan Campisi at her website here, or follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

The Sin-Eater is available on Amazon right now.

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