I borrowed The Sin Eater’s Daughter from work as a test of my YA fantasy instincts. I had a feeling from the blurb that it would prove to be one of those books with some interesting ideas but poor execution. Hey, prove me wrong, Melinda Salisbury!
Melinda Salisbury did not do that.
The Sin Eater’s Daughter isn’t awful. It’s readable enough, some of the characters feel real, and there is at least one genuinely interesting idea in it. Unfortunately, it also lacks focus and follow-through on basically all of its ideas, is poorly plotted, has some very badly executed characters, and pedestrian writing. And it’s yet another first person YA that fails to do anything that couldn’t have been accomplished in third person limited. While there are a few times the lead’s worldview could have shifted dramatically, they’re not really followed through on. So the first person just feels like a cheap way to connect the reader and the character.
Our lead (I’m reluctant to say “heroine” or even “protagonist” for reasons that will become clear) is Twylla. The daughter of her country’s Sin Eater (or one of the Sin Eaters? I was unclear on that), Twylla was initially raised to take her mother’s place symbolically taking on the sins of the recently deceased in order to ensure their passage to the afterlife. But then, it’s discovered she is the new embodiment of a daughter of the gods, and she’s taken to the castle to serve the king and queen. One of her powers is the ability to drink poison, survive, and pass it on to others through her touch, so she’s eventually made into an executioner. As the royal family is immune to this, she is also engaged to the prince.
If this sounds like the premises for two different novels, one about traditional death rites and their place in society, one about magically charged court intrigue, well, it comes across that way in the book too. In spite of the title, the portions of the book to do with sin eating are all flashback, with the exception of one scene, and have nothing to do with the main plot. Those scenes are also much more interesting than the main plot. Twylla’s abusive mother isn’t as one-dimensional as the queen, and the admittedly somewhat cliche role of the Sin Eaters (needed but shunned) still has much more complexity than the goings on in the palace.
The main plot, naturally, has to do with the evil queen and how Twylla and others must defy her rule before she completely destroys the kingdom. Actually, it’s more the “others” than Twylla. And by “others” I mean “love interests.”
Most of the book, I felt like, was love triangle. There’s the prince, who makes Twylla all fluttery but also puts her on edge, and her new guard, who is supportive but forbidden. This is dwelt on. And dwelt on. As we go through scenes that are meant to be emotional revelations but are really just distractions to keep the characters from communicating about the plot (what hints of it there are). And some of that plot could really use mentioning- I think you should tell your guard that there’s a good chance the queen is trying to assassinate you before you get caught up in conversations about your feelings.
It also very much drives home how Twylla does basically nothing until the end of the book when she’s forced to. For the most part, she goes along with the plans her boys make, maybe thinking about which one to follow. She spends the most time passively dwelling on her romantic prospects rather than the life-altering events which come up, or on other characters who are important to her. The queen’s key evil plan is hinted at a few times, but barely, so when the story finally turns to that in the final fifth or so of the book it feels like it comes out of nowhere.
By the way, I finished this book, like, three days ago and I already forgot the names of the prince and the guard. And the prince is one of the best-executed characters (he has good aims, but he’s a little unstable and self-centered).
Salisbury does not do well by women. The people who are kind to Twylla or try to help her are all male. The main authority figures in her life are abusive women she has to overcome (literally or figuratively). The one woman she might have developed a friendship with exists for her to get jealous of (because of a love interest). This woman is subsequently removed from the plot. In theory a large part of Twylla’s motivation is her devotion to her sister- but her sister is entirely off-page, and that doesn’t excuse the rest of it anyway.
And it’s as white as every other generic fantasy.
For a book where the main character’s life has been deeply centered around religion and spiritual beliefs, religion is handled in a depressingly facile way. I love stories about faith and crises of faith. I feel that it offers a great insight into a character’s morals, into their impulses (revenge? or mercy?), into how they want the world to be versus how it is. There’s great potential here to have Twylla, due to certain revelations and relationships, question the belief system, what it means to her, and how she wants to approach it.
Instead, it’s either “the gods exist and actively interfere with things” or “the gods don’t exist and so just forget about them.” Sin-eating seems to be the only real spiritual practice. Beyond that, it’s just a question of whether you believe in the gods or not. No behavior dictated by belief, no rituals, no hint Salisbury actually understands the experience of religion.
But even that’s not as big an issue for me as the fact that right smack dab in the middle of the true conflict is one of the stupidest, most ill-informed ideas I’ve ever seen get past an editor.
“We need more funding! Let’s get the secrets of alchemy so we can just make tons of gold!”
Do I even need to explain how pointless and self-defeating this plan is? Do I? The queen is treated as having serious problems, but no one questions the validity of this plan. It’s like if Goldfinger really did want to steal all the gold in Fort Knox and people thought it would actually help him.
Like I said at the beginning, The Sin Eater’s Daughter isn’t awful. There are some rather evocative scenes (mostly the creepy ones), and some good ideas.
But it’s close to being awful. Because the good ideas aren’t followed through on well, the lead is a poor character, and its other ideas are so hideously ignorant.
Of course it sets itself up for a sequel.