Today’s entry is a particularly special one as it marks the 100th review posted on this site. Thank-you very much to you all for your continued support, book recommendations and feedback and I hope that you continue to enjoy reading our next hundred reviews!
I don’t often get a chance to review brand new novels (unless they are kindly donated to me) as I simply can’t afford to buy them but as this post is special, I thought I would make an exception and take a look at a book that has only just been released. The Sin Eater’s Daughter is Melinda Salisbury’s debut novel and was published on the 5th February 2015. It is a high fantasy story about girl of low birth who has been groomed to become the next Queen of a struggling nation. The novel is intended to be the first part of a trilogy, but at the time of writing no details about future instalments have been released.
Seventeen year old Twylla lives a life that most girls would dream of. Although she was the lowly daughter of the local Sin Eater, she was invited to live in the castle when the Queen recognised her red hair as a sign that she was the Daunen Embodied – a reincarnation of the daughter of Night and Day. Leaving her life of poverty behind, Twylla accepted a place in the Queen’s court as the future bride of Prince Merek and in return the Queen agreed to ensure that her sister was well provided for.
However, Twylla quickly learned that her position had a dark secret. To prove that she had the favour of the Gods, she had to undertake a monthly ritual in which she ingested a vial of a deadly poison and survived. The side effect was that the poison infused her skin, offering a swift and bloody death to anyone who ever touched her. To show respect to her “mother”, the Goddess of Night, the Queen ordered that Twylla use this ability to execute traitors to the realm.
The weight of her position slowly sapped Twylla’s spirit, leaving her withdrawn and isolated from her peers. It is not until the Queen assigns her a new guard – a young and outspoken man named Lief – that she begins to slowly realise the extent of her dissatisfaction, yet does not know what she can do to escape her situation. However, the Queen grows crueller with each passing day and Twylla knows that if she does not flee soon she will be wedded to Merek and bound to the royal family forever.
I’ve been curious about this novel for a while as I’ve heard a lot of positive things about it and I can safely say that it’s not what I expected. At a glance, there seems to be nothing really revolutionary about this concept. I reviewed Graceling last month which had a very similar plot and political fantasies have been in fashion ever since Game of Thrones first aired. However, The Sin Eater’s Daughter is truly special. Although it is a traditional high fantasy story in setting, it does its best to avoid a lot of the standard clichés of this genre and in doing so it creates something that is truly memorable.
I do foresee this as being a bit of a marmite read. If you like your novels to be full of swords and sorcery, this is not the story for you. Salisbury’s decision to focus on a lady of the court meant that a lot of the action in the story occurs out of sight. While it is clear from early in the story that the royal family is struggling and that there is a sense of political strife, the perspective is always fixed on Twylla who does not really understand a lot about what is going on around her. It is not until midway through the novel, when plot twists begin to uncurl, that Twylla begins to see the bigger picture.
Twylla begins the story blinded by naivety. She knows that she is the nation’s figurehead and must behave accordingly and so spends her days giving thanks to the Gods for her blessings. Throughout the early part of the novel, this is basically all that she does. Every day, she prays at her temple and does various things around the court at the Queen’s whim. Although the tension builds around Twylla, she chooses to ignore it as she believes that she belongs to the Queen and her Gods and any talk to convince her otherwise is just treasonous. This is a really fascinating way to frame a story as it made Twylla more of an onlooker. Although she was a part of the story to the degree, a majority of the Queen’s grand plan did not concern her at all. It would be if the Harry Potter series had been entirely told from the perspective of Neville Longbottom. As a reader, what we experience are the events as perceived by someone on the side-lines who feels as though she is not in a position to change anything.
I personally found this to be a fascinating and original way of telling the story. As Twylla develops as a character, growing in confidence and gradually learning more about herself, she becomes more involved in the events of the story. She realises that she does have a choice after all and it’s a difficult one to make, essentially boiling down to a choice between love and duty. While she initially believes that she is a helpless pawn, she eventually discovers that she is the only one with the power to save Lormere. Unlike strong fantasy heroines like Katniss or Katsa it’s not a victory that can be obtained through physical strength, but emotional sacrifice. While I did find myself growing frustrated with Twylla at times due to her passivity, I realised in the climax that it was not a sign of weakness. Twylla is far from weak but she is human. Her personal desires and ethical leanings conflict, as they would in any decent person. Her final choice, as detailed in the epilogue, was the best outcome I could have hoped for (even if the implication of the final paragraph did cause me some small dismay).
In terms of secondary cast, I did find them to be nicely rounded and very relatable. Both Merek and Lief were interesting characters and their very different upbringings showed through in their attitude to the world around them. It was also refreshing to find that there was no real love triangle between these characters. While both Lief and Merek like Twylla, Twylla only ever reciprocates with Lief (her interest in in Merek is purely due to her perceived duty to the realm). As love triangles are a pretty staple part of young adult literature, it was nice to read a novel where this was not the main source of drama for a change.
I also really liked the flashbacks within the story, in which Twylla recalled things that she had learned while watching her birth mother’s Eatings. Although the Sin Eater only appears once in the present (and is never named) she is a continuous presence within the story due to the impact she had on Twylla’s early life. A lot of Twylla’s beliefs and early choices were inspired by things that her mother had done or said and so these flashbacks wonderfully complimented what was happening in the main plot. The running comparison between the Sin Eater and the Queen in particular added a lot of depth to the tale.
In fact, the only character that I thought was overdone was the Queen. Although her cruelty is without question (an early scene has her sentencing a man to a grizzly death for interrupting Twylla), it sometimes feels cartoonish. Although I do appreciate that there are twists late in the story that explain some of her motivation, for the large part of the story it just boils down to the fact that she’s just power mad and insane, which is never a very interesting motive to hold. For all of the novel’s originality, it still has a primary antagonist who can only be described as a wicked stepmother and this is very disappointing.
Anyhow, I feel that’s probably a good place for me to stop before I start to ramble. The Sin Eater’s Daughter is an absolutely incredible read if (like me) you like your fantasy novels to make you think and not just be filled with action and magic. It has a very realistic cast and a complex plot that held my interest throughout. While I did feel that the Queen was a weak villain and Twylla occasionally came across as being a little too helpless, I was hooked from start to finish and really can’t wait to read the sequel.
The Sin Eater’s Daughter can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk