Sinless by Sarah TarkoffSinless by Sarah Tarkoff fantasy book reviewsSinless by Sarah Tarkoff

In many ways, Sarah Tarkoff’s debut novel Sinless (2018) follows the Dystopian YA rule book: a young woman in the near future discovers that the seemingly-idyllic world she lives in is built upon a foundation of lies, and in the process of deciding how best to fight back, discovers previously untapped depths of pluck (as well as previously-unrequited feelings for a dashing and rebellious young man from her childhood). This specific young woman is Grace Luther, the daughter of a well-connected American cleric, and her world is one of beauty and service to the Great Spirit, who made its presence known gradually around the globe in the years 2024-2025. People who are pure in thought and deed are gifted with glorious good looks, while people who transgress instantaneously experience a range of punishments from disfiguring ugliness to a slow, choking death. When Grace accidentally learns that there’s more to the world than she’s been led to believe, she starts down a path which could change her life, as well as the life of everyone on the entire planet. Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, there’s nothing unexpected about Sinless, nothing that challenges genre conventions or even just standard YA tropes. Adults are universally not to be trusted, and the same holds true for most of Grace’s fellow teenagers, leaving her to run pell-mell toward whatever action will either carry or confound the plot (whichever is required in the relevant chapter). As well-intentioned as she might be, Grace embodies the Standard-Issue Dystopian Teenage Protagonist in every way: she’s sheltered beyond belief until her societal awakening, bullies her way into the rebellion’s forces despite her inexperience and liability to them, and is preternaturally lucky enough to avoid detection or severe consequences in dangerous situations. Though a total novice to any form of delinquency, she’s simultaneously stealthy enough to sneak through an illicit prison and charming enough to fool nearly any adult into trusting her with exposition dumps. I could go along with all of this if Grace had been training with the resistance for a few years, or if she were an adult who had undergone special espionage training — or if Sinless were an entirely different kind of book and Grace were a meta-human of some type. But it isn’t, and she isn’t, and the end result wasn’t impressive.

There were other aspects of Sinless that didn’t match up, like the specific mention of differing opinions on the “acceptability” of homosexuality within various cultures. For the religion of the Great Spirit to truly have a dominant hold across all cultures and belief systems on Earth, wouldn’t there need to be a stronger and more unified message on this and so many other issues? Wouldn’t the subsequent fact that some people are punished for certain actions and other people aren’t cause a rift between believers, and therefore cause divides between the prophets and adherents — thereby putting entire societies at risk? This last point is briefly touched on within Sinless, but only in an in-the-moment context as it directly concerns Grace, without any mention of historical context or precedent. And since the narrative is relayed by Grace in retrospect from a prison cell (shades of Paul the Apostle, or the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), there’s room for a greater perspective that simply wasn’t provided in this book, but might be explored later.

Tarkoff is also a little heavy-handed with character names: there’s the Prophet Joshua (a variant of the Hebrew name Yeshua, itself the origin of the Latinized Greek name Jesus) and his Guru, Samuel; Grace Luther herself, of course, and the unavoidable associations with Martin Luther; her father, Paul, a name with deep ties to early Christianity; Grace’s childhood best friend, Jude, who is Jewish and whose name could easily be a reference to either Judah or Judas, depending on how subsequent books play out. Most character names have some sort of significance, in fact, and the characters themselves could have used more fleshing-out in exchange for less-flashy nomenclature. There were moments that seemed primed for genuine growth, especially as Grace comes to understand more about her own charmed life and the disadvantages other people might be subject to, but those moments never quite received the attention they deserved. The idea that this is all told with the weight of hindsight does help in that regard, but it’s hard to get a sense for how much distance is being applied — is it years, months, or only weeks? — and it’s easy to forget that Grace is relating her past mistakes from a future date.

Tarkoff’s background is in screenwriting, and it shows. The requisite action scenes appear as expected and hit their marks, stock characters argue and make up and argue in turns, and the novel as a whole tends to read a bit like a pitch for a television series geared for a teenaged audience. Sinless is the first instalment in the planned EYE OF THE BEHOLDER series, and its target audience may well enjoy its fast pace, short chapters, and mercurial main character more than I did.

Published January 9, 2018. With shades of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies and Ally Condie’s Matched, this cinematic dystopian novel—the first in the thrilling Eye of the Beholder series—is set in a near future society in which “right” and “wrong” are manifested by beauty and ugliness. In Grace Luther’s world, morality is physically enforced. Those who are “good” are blessed with beauty, while those who are not suffer horrifying consequences—disfigurement or even death. The daughter of a cleric, Grace has always had faith in the higher power that governs her world. But when she stumbles onto information that leaves her questioning whether there are more complicated—and dangerous—forces manipulating the people around her, she finds herself at the center of an epic battle, where good and evil are not easily distinguished. Despite all her efforts to live a normal teenage life, Grace is faced with a series of decisions that will risk the lives of everyone she loves—and, ultimately, her own. With each page in this electrifying debut novel, Sarah Tarkoff masterfully plunges us into a nightmarish vision of the future. Full of high drama and pulsating tension, Sinless explores the essential questions teenagers wrestle with every day—What is beauty? What is faith? Do we take our surroundings at face value and accept all that we have been taught, or do we question the mores of the society into which we are born?—and places them in the context of a dark, dystopian world where appearances are most definitely deceiving.


  • Jana Nyman

    JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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