Twylla is an executioner. Though she’s been taken from her lowly home to live in the palace, been engaged to the prince, and is wanting of nothing, she is haunted by the people she must kill and resents every moment of her life in the palace. For her skin is poisonous and any person she comes into contact with dies a gruesome and painful death; only the prince is immune to her touch. But everything is not as it seems in the palace and soon Twylla will find herself questioning not only her role but also her faith.
Twylla has a cohort of guards, but when her personal guard falls ill, she falls into the sole care of Lief, a foreigner who is apparently immune to the fear the rest of the kingdom feels for Twylla. He’s at ease where others are frightened, and keeps coming dangerously close to touching her where others stay away. But Twylla is under the power of the diabolical queen, who has executed every person Twylla has ever gotten close to. More than that, she’s had Twylla herself do the executing. Tempting as it is to grow closer and closer with Lief, Twylla knows the dangers of doing so and dreads the day she’ll have to kill him too.
Debut novelist Melinda Salisbury would have you think The Sin Eater’s Daughter centres wholly around just that, but unfortunately that is a seriously false promise. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this story has anything to do with Sin Eating. Yes, Twylla’s mother is a Sin Eater — she is paid to attend a feast after someone has died and — literally — eat their sins, but this was the only airtime Sin Eating actually received. The premise is that different foods represent different sins, and there is a particularly sickly scene in which Twylla’s mother eats a platter of soured cream so the deceased can be purified. For a really interesting and innovative piece of worldbuilding, it’s a shame it didn’t feature more in the novel.
The pacing was also a little off. After a very slow start the story certainly did pick up, and readers will inevitably find themselves rooting for the desolate Twylla. Her unfolding relationship with Lief is also pretty compelling — much more so than many YA romances. It’s not the sickly eye-gazing, freckle-counting love story that usually plagues these stories — or at least, not for the first few chapters anyway… Salisbury did lose my attention once it got too sloppy, but there was an admirable stint beforehand in which tension was built up.
The novel is beautifully written, and for that reason alone, it stands apart from some of its YA contemporaries. Funnily enough, the best descriptions were of the Sin Eater — Twylla’s mother — a grossly overweight woman who gorges herself on the funerary feasts. These passages were reminiscent of George R. R. Martin in their grotesqueness and ability to evoke disgusting character. They were amongst the highlights of the novel.
One gripe I do have with The Sin Eater’s Daughter, which I think was ultimately its downfall, was Twylla’s absolute passivity over her fate. There is no real growth arc; she never takes control over her situation and we arrive at the novel’s climax purely on account of other character’s actions. I know this is the beginning of a series, but every novel should be able to stand on its own two feet and unfortunately Twylla’s character just fell a little short. Nonetheless, this is a much better book than many of the other prescriptive YA offerings out there, and I have no doubt that many readers will enjoy some of the more innovative aspects of the worldbuilding.