... magnificent ... Campisi evokes a complex, vivid, barely alternate Elizabethan England. At some moments, history is in harmony with the novel; at other points, they depart one another’s company ... Campisi’s May is a phenomenal protagonist ... The affairs of that court are legendary, but stripped of the authority of history, they are revealed as impenetrable and deeply frightening ... This vision of Renaissance outsiders is exactly what historical fiction lovers have unknowingly craved. Sin Eater is Campisi’s first novel (she has had plays produced, but none have yet been published), and the only disappointment it offers is the absence of a massive body of work waiting for the reader to devour when this first book ends.
Soon I became engrossed in this sumptuous Tudor banquet of a novel, savouring its charming, fairytale-like language and complex narrative. I have always been greedy for delicious writing and here it was, served up to me in generous helpings ... In addition to being enraptured with the sin eater, I fell in love with Campisi’s heroine. May is a wonderful character. Intelligent and embattled, she learns early how cruel a woman’s existence is, and we are invited inside her heart and mind in order to witness how she devises a way to transform herself from child-victim into mistress of her destiny ... a very physical novel, its centre the desiring, devouring, life-giving, murdering, and dying female body. I delighted in the woman’s viewpoint, as well as in the novel’s rich language.
... a fully fleshed work of speculative fiction, abundant with the fine details of Elizabethan life and, of course, food. May is a damaged and sympathetic heroine, at once intelligent and innocent. This is an opulently imagined debut, horrific and weirdly beautiful, filled with earnest feeling as well as cruelty. Set aside time to read this engrossing novel in one go.
... wonderful ... a riveting depiction of hard-won female empowerment that weaves together meticulous research, unsolved murder — and an unforgettable young heroine ... Campisi employs deft plotting and an impressive gift for evoking the lives of women in this reimagined Elizabethan era, when being born female was often a death sentence, by dint of sexual assault, starvation, domestic abuse, illness or lack of education ... Occasionally, the novel’s milieu grows confusing. The array of names, especially May’s nicknames for those in court — Country Mouse, Painted Pig, the Willow Tree, Mush Face, Black Fingers — can leave a reader as momentarily befuddled as the sin eater who is trying to make sense of it all. And the mystery, while carefully plotted, is never quite as compelling as the characters and vibrant, Bruegelesque setting where it all unfolds ... But the dark world of Sin Eater exists only slightly sideways from our own, especially in the midst of a pandemic that reminds us of earlier eras when disease, mistrust of the government and fear held sway. And while Campisi doesn’t flinch from depicting its horrors, the ultimate effect is far more exhilarating and hopeful than grim. There is no Hogwarts-style magic here, other than the alchemy of great storytelling, which results in a book reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale or Russell Hoban’s great, sui generis sci-fi novel Riddley Walker.
I was on the edge of my seat, trying to understand what all the information meant. Finally, the puzzle pieces fell into place. I think the most satisfying mystery is when a reader can look back and understand how the clues contributed to the final picture, and Sin Eater accomplishes this ... Campisi completely captures the energy and vernacular of a young girl who notices the smallest details. It makes the story and May all the more lovable. Even the descriptions of the excessive food she must consume will make readers wrinkle their noses. In addition, her character development is extremely gratifying. Her growth into a woman of strength and confidence is truly inspiring ... Campisi does a wonderful job representing so many different people. From lepers to royal suitors to mafia bosses, this story has such a diversity of influential personalities ... While I am not a history buff, I was very much able to enjoy this book. Campisi does a great job of educating her audience in subtle and clever ways. Though sometimes she uses older language, she provides more than enough context for all to understand ... an original novel that will keep you on the edge of your seat. However, a word to the wise: Do not read it while eating!
May’s illiteracy and social isolation complicate her dangerous quest to unearth answers. Her spunky humor and determination to assert her own value, even in a dead-end occupation at society’s nadir, make her a captivating heroine. Recommend this debut, an original melding of mystery and alternate history, to admirers of Karen Maitland’s folklore-infused medieval thrillers and Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River.
Playwright Campisi draws on a punitive English folk ritual in her rousing, impressive debut, a bleak reimagining of palace intrigue in 16th-century England ... Campisi’s stirring portrait of injustice is deepened by May’s cleverness, frustration, and grief. This spellbinding novel is a treat for fans of feminist speculative fiction.
While the tradition of the sin eater is based on historical fact and the setting is clearly supposed to be inspired by Elizabethan England, Campisi deliberately creates an alternate world where Queen Bethany, daughter of King Harold II and the disgraced Alys Bollings, has taken the throne after the death of her half sister, Queen Maris, in the midst of a religious civil war. While her decision to build this world, a thinly veiled version of true English history, is a curious one, it does add an element of fantasy to the novel that’s very much reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale. In this way, it transcends its historical roots to give us a modern heroine ... Richly imaginative and strikingly contemporary.