Hello, everyone! May started off with a slump with the mediocre Crimson Bound, but luckily it rebounded with Megan Campisi’s Sin Eater, a novel that combines all of my favorite things: Elizabethan history, murder mysteries, and delicious descriptions of food. The book isn’t perfect, but as Campisi’s literary debut, it knocked my cynical socks right off. Inventive, well-researched, and surprisingly touching, Sin Eater is the perfect book to lose yourself in this Memorial Day Weekend.
Synopsis: When newly-orphaned May Owens steals a loaf of bread, she expects a harsh punishment, but nothing prepares her for being named the town’s newest Sin Eater. Forced into silence, and pushed to the fringes of society, May must spend her days hearing the sins of the town and consuming them later in symbolic Eatings, thus absolving the dead of their guilt. But when the other Sin Eater refuses to eat an unrecited sin at the Eating of a highborn woman in Queen Bethany’s court, she is tortured and executed. Helpless, but determined to avenge her companion’s death, May must discover who was responsible for placing the false sin, and and in doing so finds herself at the deadly heart of Elizabethan politics.
My take: Sin Eater is one of many books to fall prey to deceptive marketing, but unlike lesser works (Crimson Bound), actually manages to surpass any false expectations. Branded as “The Handmaid’s Tale meets Alice in Wonderland,” the novel is actually pretty unique, drawing on factual historical events and infusing them with some dystopian horror.
The strongest parts of Campisi’s novel are her attention to historical detail and her character building. Any fans of Elizabethan history will immediately recognize the true historical people who served as the basis for characters like Queen Bethany, Black Fingers, Katryna Seymaur, and Lady Corliss. I was at first put off by how little Campisi altered the names of real people, but as the novel wore on, I started to realize the cleverness of it. The world of Sin Eater is one very similar to our own, yet separated by the thinnest of lines. So even though there are obvious resemblances between Campisi’s characters and their historical counterparts, she uses what we know about these people against us, almost daring the reader to predict what might happen, and subverting their expectations.
Our protagonist, May Owens, is a special kind of hero, one whose outer gentleness and empathy for others belies her harsh upbringing and internal toughness. As we see the world through her eyes, Campisi allows the reader to observe the small, beautiful parts of Elizabethan society, while also drawing their attention to its absolute cruelty. May’s style of narration dominates Sin Eater, which spends the majority of its time in reflection, rather than action. Because of her status as a Sin Eater, very few characters in the novel speak to May, and those who do only address her indirectly. In the hands of another author, this might have allowed for a host of one-dimensional secondary characters, but May is so observant, and so eager to connect with those around her, even as they shun her, that side characters have small, but vivid parts in the novel. What’s fascinating is how much space Campisi gives to societal outcasts, characters like actors, lepers, and criminals, that other novels would have never touched. As a novel about the Elizabethan age, yet told from the perspective of a pariah, the reader gets a rare look into the lives of the people that history prefers to leave behind.
At its heart, the novel is an examination of sinning and absolution, and a study about how wealth and class often conceal the worst of sinners from judgment. May is young, female, and poor, yet it’s she who has to hear the sins of the most powerful people in her society, and only she who can ultimately absolve them. Undercurrents of modern feminist thought run through this novel, but I think comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale overemphasize the role of feminism in the book. While the book does discuss pitfalls of traditional femininity, especially in terms of Eve’s original sin, it has more to do with May defining her worth as a person in a world where being orphaned and penniless is practically a criminal offense. It’s a dark book, but also strangely hopeful and empowering, which was definitely not what I expected from the deliciously gothic cover.
My only problem with the novel is the murder mystery, which hinges on a pretty well-known Elizabethan conspiracy theory. As someone who has read way, way, way too much about Queen Elizabeth, I saw the culprit coming from a mile away. That is the one issue with making the characters in the novel into sketches of their historical counterparts because their motivations are too easy to guess. But if you’re new to Elizabethan history, or just a casual fan, then you will definitely be surprised by the ending. Overall the mystery was well-crafted, just too obvious for weirdo obsessives like myself.
Final consensus: Sin Eater is a unique take on a well-known era, and a fantastic combination of dystopian fiction and Elizabethan history. Her characters are sympathetic, the setting is expertly crafted, and the murder mystery is thrilling, if a little too predictable. You won’t be disappointed. Hopefully Megan Campisi, who was a sous-chef before she was an author, is working on a Sin Eater Cookbook.