After reading the first chapter of the Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda
Salisbury for #FirstChapterFriday, I decided to finish the book. The first chapter started out great, but I noted that the second half of it took a bad turn and hoped that the story would right itself in the following chapters. It didn’t. Here are the reasons why The Sin Eater’s Daughter was such a letdown.
1. Lack of action makes the heroine unsympathetic
A protagonist is supposed to act. That’s what readers like about them. Even when they’re the Reluctant Hero, eventually they’re forced to take action against the central conflict and actively do something to solve their problem. Readers generally don’t like characters who whine and expect everyone else to solve their problems because we can’t root for someone who won’t take action.
Early in the story, Twylla, the “heroine” of The Sin Eater’s Daughter, is locked in her room indefinitely. What does she do about it? Absolutely nothing. Does she like it? No. But does she try to do anything about it? No. Except try to ask the evil queen who put her there to let her out, as if that was ever going to work. She just sits in her room lamenting about how she has to marry the prince, which she wasn’t upset about and was even happy about until another boy her age stepped into the story. Only when this new lover comes into the picture and tells her how she can solve her problems does she even think about taking action.
This girl is basically friendless because her skin is poisonous and no one wants to go near her. While she’s locked in her room, one of the only people she cares about is dying on the other side of the castle. Also, she doesn’t want to be stuck in her room. With poisonous skin, she can threaten almost anyone in the castle to let her do what she wants, i.e. step out of her room and visit her sick friend. Not once does that occur to her. She doesn’t even consider climbing out the window. Her goal is to wait for the evil queen who locked her in her room to change her mind, until someone else vows to solve her problem for her. How can readers get on board with this? What conflict is this course of non-action going to give rise to? How is this non-action going to be exciting for me, the reader? Why should I give a single damn about this girl who won’t lift a poisonous finger to help herself?
2. Lack of motivation makes the heroine unsympathetic
I wonder if I’ve yet made it clear how much I dislike this protagonist. If not, here’s another point: when you want the reader to believe a character is doing something out of love, you have to make them believe that this love exists. When this love doesn’t exist prior to the story, the writer has to develop it in a way that the reader can believe. Repeating sentiments like “my skin burned when he touched me” is not developing a romantic connection. If the writer doesn’t complement these sensations with emotions (which Salisbury doesn’t), it’s nothing but lust. In a love story, lust is not enough of a motivator for committing treason. This book isn’t the right genre for that.
In The Sin Eater’s Daughter, the reader is supposed to be convinced that the love the protagonist has found surpasses her duty to her country. The reader is supposed to sympathise with her decision to abandon her duty and put her life on the line to escape the castle and marry this lover of hers. The reader is supposed to want her to succeed in this. But there weren’t any real romantic moments, as everything the protagonist “felt” about this lover was sensory, not emotional. Not enough time passed and not enough non-physical moments were shared for this to be developed; therefore, I wasn’t convinced that her feelings about this lover surpassed her duty to her country. She didn’t love him nearly enough to put her life on the line to escape so that she could marry him. This girl had plenty of reasons to hate her life, but didn’t even consider doing a thing to change it until she thought she was in love. I didn’t believe this motivation; therefore, I didn’t give a crap whether she succeeded or not.
3. Telling instead of showing makes interactions unbelievable
To sympathise with these lovers, the reader is also supposed to believe that Twylla doesn’t want to marry the prince, which didn’t become an issue until a while after lover #2 stepped into the story. This excerpt is from the first time Twylla sees the prince in two years:
My jaw falls open; I’m stunned that he’s here, that he’s grown so tall, that he looks like a prince, not the gangly, sullen-seeming boy I used to glimpse on my way to and from my temple. His shoulders are broad, his dark curls brushing the top of his tunic as he inclines his head to his mother. He’s truly handsome, I realize with a shock. My betrothed is handsome, despite the same cruel edge to his features his mother has, the same watchful brown eyes. 
Up to this point, the reader has been introduced to the negative aspects of Twylla’s life, none of which involve her betrothal to this handsome fella and the prospect of being his queen one day. While she doesn’t say, “Golly, I’m so lucky”, if we put this appealing description of him in the context of her not-negative feelings about her betrothal, it’s pretty clear that she’s not mad about the fact that he’s handsome. The next important development of this relationship is that Twylla’s glad to see the prince showing signs of rebellion against his mother, the evil queen. He’s handsome, and he hates his mother like Twylla does. She later says that to marry a prince is what she wanted. Things are all good so far, which means that each interaction they have following this will have a positive, even if slightly confused, mood. There’s nothing negative about it.
Enter the third side of this triangle. After a completely underdeveloped and unconvincing beginning to Twylla’s relationship with lover #2, the prince kisses her and the reader is told:
He’s so cold, so cold compared to Lief. His lips are like the lips of a statue as they brush against mine, so different from Lief and the heat that crackles between us when we touch. 
I have no problem with Twylla broadening her horizons and wondering if there might be more to life than being a queen and deciding that she doesn’t want to marry the prince after all because she doesn’t love him, but this relationship has been set up as something else and this description of their kiss is neither believable nor satisfying. The prince has been good to her and and because he isn’t unlikable, her interactions with him have been confusing, especially as she’s become involved with someone else and realises that she has choices. Her feelings about the prince have been complex and conflicting, but they do exist and they’ve been shown to the reader through her thoughts, feelings and the context in which the interactions are put.
Description-wise, this excerpt is “showing” because it lets the reader infer how she feels about the kiss. Narrative-wise, it’s telling because it’s forcing an idea on the reader that they wouldn’t have concluded on their own based on the context. Twylla and the prince’s interactions have ranged from positive, to confusing, to a little sad, but never outright negative. There’s an emotional connection between the two of them (which the other end of the triangle lacks), and this kiss should be placed in this context. If it’s to be negative, that negativity should be laced with confusion and sadness to be consistent with their other interactions and provide closure to this relationship. There should be an emotional thought process behind this crap about him being a statue (c’mon, really?). Instead, we get “Guy #2’s kisses crackle with heat and guy #1’s kiss is cold. Guy #2 is the clear winner”, which doesn’t make sense to the reader, so it isn’t convincing.
4. The title makes a promise, which is broken
I dislike titles that are slapped on to the cover of a book because they sound cool. What follows a heading are ideas that relate to that heading. It’s how we organise information in writing. I don’t believe book titles should be any different.
The relationship between the title The Sin Eater’s Daughter and the story is that before Twylla went to live in the castle prior to the beginning of the story, she was the daughter of the city’s Sin Eater, which is a fascinating but underutilised concept. While yes, Twylla is the Sin Eater’s daughter and the book is about Twylla, the Sin Eating aspect has got nothing to do with the story whatsoever. You could remove everything to do with Sin Eaters and Sin Eating and the story would be exactly the same. Titling the book The Sin Eater’s Daughter suggests that while the book is going to feature the Sin Eater’s Daughter, Sin Eating is also going to have a role. It doesn’t. Promise broken. A better title would have been Daunen Embodied, a moniker referring both to Twylla and to her poisonous skin, which is a major plot device.
Have you read The Sin Eater’s Daughter? What did you think?
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