4 out of 5 stars.
Major Spoiler Alert!
Boy, did Salisbury ever do a good job of constructing a neat world for this novel.
Twylla grew up knowing her destiny was to take her mother’s place as the sin-eater, the one person in the kingdom who can eat a person’s sins, in the form of various symbolic food, off of their coffins and give them rest and peace. Her destiny turns out to be even greater when she is discovered to be the Goddess incarnate. She is taken to the palace and betrothed to the prince, but this position comes with a cost. As the Goddess on Earth, she alone can swallow poison and diffuse it through her skin, bringing justice to those she touches. She now lives as the Queen’s executioner (and since the Queen is a homicidal maniac, this means a lot of executions). Disobeying the Queen means disobeying the Gods, though, so Twylla has never had the courage to stand up for herself or for others. When both the newly-returned prince and a new guard start noticing her, Twylla has to come to terms with what her position and her poisonous skin mean long-term.
It turns out that her position is a lie and the Queen carefully cultivated the mythos around the Goddess to be able to have an appropriate bride for her son (the family has traditionally married brother to sister to preserve the bloodline). The Queen’s first daughter is dead and there is no chance of her having another one. She cannot have a blood-daughter to marry her son, so she creates a spiritual one. Just as the King and Queen are the main God and Goddess for the kingdom, Twylla becomes another Goddess who is their daughter. Her immunity to poisons and deadly touch are constructed to protect her from assassination, and gives the Queen’s executions that appearance of being divinely guided.
Twylla discovers this and decides to run, rather than live the rest of her life being a cruel prop for the monarchy. She decides to escape with her guard Lief whom she has grown to love, but before they can run the Queen poisons the King and the prince, Merek, pleads with Twylla to marry him before his mother can (she is crazy at this point). Twylla has to choose between her love and rescuing her kingdom from an incestuous madwoman. In a disappointing cop-out, the story resolves with it being revealed that Lief was hired to seduce Twylla away from the prince (there goes the love triangle) and that the Queen poisoned the King (so the main antagonist is dragged away). In a surprising recovery from the betrayal deus ex machina that would normally force Twylla and Merek together, Twylla decides that one in her life she is going to make a decision for herself and leaves both of the men (they both profess to still love her) and goes to live on her own in a cabin where she can think over her impending decisions.
I really appreciated the twist ending. It felt like a kick to the stomach when it was revealed that Lief was in the Queen’s pay and that usually means a good emotional connection to the characters. Twylla leaving both men to rationally plan out her future was also a great touch, and I did take some pleasure in the crazed Queen being carried out of the room kicking and screaming.
This book had more romance in it than I can usually tolerate, but it was balanced out with enough plot elsewhere that it was not cloying or annoying. Twylla explores romance, but also the way her position is used by the Queen to manipulate her people (having the Goddess marry into the family definitely props up her reign) and the way fear of divine reprisal can stifle almost any complaint, no matter how valid. I like it when YA books address real world issues, and a government’s use of religion to keep people in line is an important topic.
Twylla gets pushed around a lot, but since any disobedience is believed to really tick off the Gods that gave her her powers, it makes sense within the frame of the character. She was first dominated by her mother, then by the Queen, and told all along that it is divinely ordained that she obey and submit. If characters are going to be pushovers, I at least want some internal justification and it is present here.
The Queen, while certainly pretty darn evil, also has a bit more personality than a stock villain. Sure she is crazy and awful, but she also has had to bury a daughter and a husband and feels like she is letting down an entire kingdom by not being able to have more children. It is not a justification for her acts, but it does give them some shape and explanation.
Without this world and the mythology built into it, this would be a very standard book. Thankfully, Salisbury was able to build up a history and belief system that compensated for some plot silliness.