This is the eighth of my reviews of the YA Book Prize shortlist. I’m going to be reading and reviewing each title on the shortlist, so HOLD TIGHT and get ready for FEELINGS and OPINIONS.
Twylla is fair of voice and red of hair. She lives at the top of a tower in the castle. She is betrothed to the prince. One day, she shall be queen. For now, she is the executioner: poison runs through her veins, she kills with a single touch. The guards that flank her day and night are there to protect the rest of the world from her as much as the other way around. When she is assigned a new guard, Twylla is surprised to find that Lief isn’t afraid of her. At the same time Prince Merek, long abroad, has returned, and Twylla now has the attentions of two extraordinary young men to deal with.
This is fairy tale subverted. The Sin Eater’s Daughter is a fable about the harm done by non-physical violence; the threat of the queen’s “mercy” is ever present, but the devastating effect of her control over Twylla is that Twylla is as trapped by the fortresses in her own mind as she is by the castle gates. Taken as an extended fantasy metaphor for an abusive family, The Sin Eater’s Daughter is very effective, with a skin-crawling depiction of narcissism, control, and gaslighting. The queen knows the best way to keep Twylla captive is to make her complicit in her own captivity, so she is instilled with the idea that the gods – who are always watching – will strike her down for ingratitude.
Again, taken as a metaphor, there is a reassuring message here: keep your head down and you’ll get out. Captain Awkward, an internet advice columnist whose blog genuinely changed my life, talks about “a small, quiet room that is just yours, where you are safe and you are free” in this old post. (Read the whole last paragraph.) And Twylla does make it there. Her happily ever after is a place to herself where she learns to read. She is asked to choose between two men and she picks neither. The epilogue might just be my favourite part of the book.
But as much as I appreciated the ending, I struggled to see the feminist themes elsewhere in the book. I’m all about promoting the different ways in which “strong female characters” can be strong. I’m a big Sansa Stark fan. Twylla and Helewys are essentially Sansa-and-Cersei-lite: the naive young girl and the evil queen in a battle of wills and court politics. No doubt for some readers, Twylla’s journey is a resonant story of survival, and I would like to be with them, but I just found her so boring. The entire book is about her being rescued by men. The other female characters are similarly uninspiring: the queen is probably the most relatable character because she also hates everybody else in the book. The queen, incidentally, is the most politically powerful person in the kingdom, but she’s a) insane and b) infertile and therefore unable consolidate her power. I loved the rich, mysterious symbolism of the Eating and enjoyed the Sin Eater as a character, but she wields her power spitefully and is an indifferent mother. Maryl, Twylla’s sister, exists solely as a spectre of Twylla’s self-pity. The Sin Eater’s Daughter depicts sexist structures without delving deep enough to problematise them.
…I saw the look in my eye. It was the look of wanting: lust, bright strawberry-flavoured list. And I can’t allow myself to want, because I am betrothed to the prince and if I touch anyone else I will kill them.
For example, the above quote is a brilliant twist on the shame around female sexuality and… it’s just there. Twylla’s touch is literally toxic. Her body is contaminated. The metaphor is ripe, but it’s left unplucked. What a waste! (Admittedly, Twylla realises she is not poisonous and has sex with a cute boy, but… only after the cute boy tells her she’s not poisonous. And kisses her. Without asking.)
Lief’s story of the Sleeping Prince is more interesting than the plot of the actual novel, and it’s part of some intriguing world-building. I’m a sucker for fictional religions and folklore and I really liked that aspect of the story. As I said, I found the Sin Eating fascinating, and I love that the book’s title refers to Twylla as the Sin Eater’s daughter rather than Daunen Embodied. In Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, the eponymous character is more correctly called Hedda Tesman, Gabler being her maiden name. Ibsen meant to imply that Hedda should be considered her father’s daughter rather than her husband’s wife. Should we infer that Twylla is her mother’s daughter, not daughter to the gods? She seems to abandon both, but perhaps eventually she will come into the elemental power she admired in the Sin Eater. Hopefully she’ll become the hero of her own story.
In summary: I liked this book’s cover a lot more than I liked what was inside it. SORRY.