The Sin Eater by Megan Campisi
She’s barely learnt her new role when her mentor is thrown into the dungeon, for refusing to eat the food for a sin that wasn’t declared. Scared and confused, May nevertheless is determined to solve the mystery at the core of Queen Bethany’s court. Some attribute the untoward deaths to witchcraft but May finds clues in surprising places, and grows into more than a sin eater along the way.
A coming-of-age story set in an alternative sixteenth century England, acclaimed playwright Megan Campisi’s debut novel is about power and prejudice, demons and outcasts, and the need to discover one’s own moral code. The prose is superb, and the premise as intriguing as the title suggests. Although less taken with the mystery, I found it an enjoyable read. Published this month by Mantle, who provided my proof copy, it’s out in July in the USA.
Soot by Dan Vyleta
We meet her as a young woman in 1909 in St John’s, Canada, from where she travels to New York with an unusual theatre group. Smoke – now enjoyed and feared throughout the world in equal measure – is central to their art, whipping up emotion within the audience and blowing it away in time for them to return safely to their homes. Thanks to her upbringing, Eleanor has the unique ability to imbibe the smoke of others and send it out again transformed. She made me think of a therapist in her capacity to accept and disarm disturbing affect.
Smith, an administrator in the East India Company that is once again the de facto British Empire, is also drawn to the theatricals, sensing a business opportunity in their capacity to manufacture smoke. He’s interested in Eleanor merely as a bargaining chip in a potential deal with her estranged uncle, the Lord Protector of England – or at least what’s left of England after a smoke-fuelled revolution kindled threads of socialism in the industrial Midlands.
Nil, a teenage thief and master of disguise, is trailing Smith for non-commercial reasons. An orphan snatched from his jungle home in early childhood, he sees the bureaucrat as the key to discovering his ill-remembered past.
Reading this in lockdown, it was all too easy to construe the smoke as a virus infecting communities all over the world. But, its physical effects notwithstanding, this is about psychological contagion, and the conflicting fear and desire to shed our inhibitions, to be honest in our emotions and to see and be seen, warts and all, for who we really are. A complex story unfolding through beautiful prose, it’s an intelligent novel about the return of the repressed and touching the darkness that’s in us all. Thanks to Weidenfeld & Nicolson for my review copy.
For a similar-but-completely-different novel featuring the East India Company, see my review of Antonin Varenne’s Retribution Road.