Campisi immerses herself in the struggles of her young 16th-century protagonist, 14-year-old May. Parentless, she is at the mercy of indifferent relatives, eventually arrested for stealing a loaf of bread. Her punishment: tongue branded and a metal collar locked around her neck. May's youth is forfeit to the future as a Sin Eater. "Shunned and brutally mocked," she must hear the confessions ("Recitations") of the dying, "consuming the ritual foods of their sins" that they might go to heaven. It is the perfect melding of early Christianity and the old ways in the 16th century, the complex blend of education and ignorance that allows the royals and influential to rule over the poor and the powerless. Grounded in superstition, the commoners are bound by both tradition and the arcane.
May takes the vow of the Sin Eater, "unseen, unheard," under the tutelage of an older Sin Eater whose obese body literally defines the burden of others' sins. The ritual demands consumption of the particular items of their offenses, from Brandy Posset (Conspiracy) and Shortbread (Desecration) to Crow's Meat with Plum (Slander).
Obeying a summons to the castle, the Sin Eaters young and old balk when a deer's heart is left at the foot of the queen's dead governess (a Deer's Heart for Killing). The older Sin Eater refuses to consume it and is sent summarily to prison, charged with treason. Believing, as well, that the governess did not commit the crime (Murder) that sent her mentor to prison, the young Sin Eater sets out to right the wrong, a near impossible task for one doomed to be voiceless and unnoticed, an outcast sustained on the sins of the dead.
A simple girl with no learning save the lessons of the street, May navigates a world that pushes the poor and helpless aside. The streets are a bitter place for those who survive by their wits, if at all. It is a familiar place for an orphan, but she learns to appreciate the anonymity she is afforded traveling from one deathbed to another. The folk's fear allows the Sin Eater to move freely, shunned by those who set eyes upon her, superstition her only weapon: "I can't be cursed. I am a curse."
Recreating her new identity in the home of her dead mentor, the young Sin Eater answers the daily calls of those requesting a Recitation, haunted by the images of the older woman tortured for her refusal to eat the deer's heart. There is a murderer about, and the inexperienced Sin Eater feels it is her duty to unravel the mystery--especially after two more suspicious deaths in the castle, a deer's heart placed at the foot of each corpse.
It is a harrowing experience, the Sin Eater attacked at the castle when one of the queen's loyalists suspects the silent girl has begun to question the women's deaths. The Sin Eater is ensnared, caught between making a life modeled on that of her mentor--sleeping in the loft, fitting her shape to that of the older woman--and the need to expose the identity of the
murderer, fulfilling a secret vow to the woman who suffered and died at the hands of her torturer in a cold, dark cell.
Terrified of returning to the castle, the girl avoids her attacker whenever called to a Recitation there. At the same time, she is learning to appreciate the solitary existence forced upon her. She gathers a small assortment of folk in her home, first a woman disfigured by leprosy and her companion, a man with a horribly scarred face. Later these vagrants are joined by others seeking sanctuary, an actor and a woman with small children who has been on the street. This vagabond family accepts their hostess's silence and occupation, and she tolerates their chattering and messiness, a strange but comforting group content with their own society.
The author's unique 16th-century perspective lends the tale a charming simplicity. Life is condensed into the small world of a desperate girl arrested for theft and given a lifetime punishment, forever shackled in infamy. Though the characters are familiar historically ("the old king, Queen Maris and now the Virgin Queen"), they are viewed through the lens of this beleaguered young women's experience, a humble commoner sentenced to walk among others forever unseen, unheard. In often enchantubg prose, Sin Eater is infused with the images of poverty and hopelessness at the mercy of royals, treason and betrayal, cacophony and silence, a newly-sentenced Sin Eater absorbing the sins of others that they may rest in peace.
This compelling drama plays out in an arena of desperately poor folk, yet this unlikely character, this Sin Eater, unravels the truth behind a broader mystery, one which history has yet to resolve. A beloved queen claims her throne against all contenders, and a branded thief--the Sin Eater, once unfettered from her prior life--discovers a freedom beyond the collar locked around her neck and the tattoo burned into her tongue, a new vision of the future.