For the crime of stealing bread, fourteen-year-old May receives a life sentence: she must become a Sin Eater—a shunned woman, brutally marked, whose fate is to hear the final confessions of the dying, eat ritual foods symbolizing their sins as a funeral rite, and thereby shoulder their transgressions to grant their souls access to heaven.
Orphaned and friendless, apprenticed to an older Sin Eater who cannot speak to her, May must make her way in a dangerous and cruel world she barely understands. When a deer heart appears on the coffin of a royal governess who did not confess to the dreadful sin it represents, the older Sin Eater refuses to eat it. She is taken to prison, tortured, and killed. To avenge her death, May must find out who placed the deer heart on the coffin and why.
The Bottom Line: Upon reflection, I can’t say I loved this book, but I can definitively say I found it fascinating. Though the names have been altered, the setting is clearly England during the reign of Elizabeth I and there are nefarious deeds being perpetrated in the castle. Getting to the bottom of the mystery requires the abilities of one young lady, a recently appointed sin eater who is caught up in a mess she never should have been privy to.
In truth, I could have done without the whole court conspiracy bit and just read about the life of May, the sin eater. Her punishment is reprehensible, the people she lives among treat her as an outcast, at best, yet they need her on a daily basis to make themselves feel better about their miserable lives. The dynamic between May and the people she “serves” was the most intriguing aspect of this read, followed closely by the sins and the foods associated with them. Finally, “watching” as May comes to terms with her life sentence was like watching a train wreck, you know its’s bad and you should be watching, but you also can’t stop yourself.
The writing is top notch the story is fascinating, but this isn’t going to be a story for all readers. This book sort of defies placement within a specific genre, the abuse May suffers, and the matching up of the fake names with the real historical figures will be bothersome to many. For the rest of us, it’s just an intense and wonderfully weird read.