The Virtue of Sin by Shannon Schuren
My Rating: 4/5 TARDISes
Date Published: June 25th, 2019
Publisher: Philomel Books
Pages: 432 pages
Synopsis: Miriam lives in New Jerusalem, a haven in the desert far away from the sins and depravity of the outside world. Within the gates of New Jerusalem, and under the eye of its founder and leader, Daniel, Miriam knows she is safe. Cared for. Even if she’s forced, as a girl, to quiet her tongue when she has thoughts she wants to share, Miriam knows that New Jerusalem is a far better life than any alternative. So when God calls for a Matrimony, she’s thrilled; she knows that Caleb, the boy she loves, will choose her to be his wife and they can finally start their life together.
But when the ceremony goes wrong and Miriam winds up with someone else, she can no longer keep quiet. For the first time, Miriam begins to question not only the rules that Daniel has set in place, but also what it is she believes in, and where she truly belongs.
Alongside unexpected allies, Miriam fights to learn–and challenge–the truth behind the only way of life she’s ever known, even if it means straying from the path of Righteousness.
A compelling debut novel about speaking out, standing up, and breaking free.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review*
This is a spoiler-free review.
There are so many aspects of this story that appealed to both the book nerd and psychology nerd in me and I was completely absorbed from the start. This is the story of two teenagers who have spent their entire lives in a cult and how they deal with their newfound clarity about their situation as they are thrown into adulthood in the community. It is a novel that portrays the importance of not always taking what people in power say at face value, fighting for equality, and learning to accept others—and oneself—for who they are.
I absolutely love anything to do with psychology—I am actually currently a forensic psychology major—and the psychology of cults is particularly interesting to study. Seeing the mindsets of both the members and the leaders is both fascinating and chilling. This novel primarily demonstrates how the beliefs and laws a leader comes up with are drilled into members. We see how this warps a person’s thoughts and view of the world and how incredibly challenging it is to break free of these beliefs. Schuren’s depictions of these elements of a cult are very accurate, enraging, and heartbreaking.
The primary subject dealt with in this novel is the unequal and extremely poor treatment of women within the cult. We see how the men silence them and do not allow them to make their own decisions. There are also other elements of the unfair treatment of minorities in the plot. The importance of standing up for these types of injustices, whether you are part of that minority or not, and of treating others with respect are shown through this story.
I was surprised at how many twists there were in this novel that I did not see coming. And I liked every single one. Schuren takes the narrative in a number of unexpected directions. There are so many secrets spilled and revelations that propelled me through every chapter. This is a true page-turner.
One of the only issues I feel the story has is that it does become a bit repetitive. I somewhat conflicted about this because it does make sense in context to some extent. The process of changing ones’ mindset and beliefs about something or someone—particularly in such a severe situation—takes a lot of time. Miriam actually does come around and see the lies of the cult’s leader fairly quickly in terms of the number of days over which the story takes place. However, I did feel that facts potentially did not need to be repeated to the reader after the first few times hearing them. Overall, this is just a very minor problem I came across.
Miriam is an incredibly strong female lead right from the very beginning of the novel. She does not want to put up with the suppression and ill-treatment of women that the men of the cult have turned into an accepted way of life. She gradually finds her voice and stands up for not just herself and the other women, but for everyone who is under the control of the Prophet. Headstrong and intelligent, Miriam makes a wonderful protagonist.
This story is not just told from Miriam’s perspective but also from Caleb’s, the boy she’s sure she is meant to marry. Alternating between these characters and seeing every situation through two different sets of eyes made this an even more intriguing plot. Schuren writes these narrators well, making their voices distinct from the other, which can be a challenge when working with more than one point of view.
Both main characters and side characters alike are multi-dimensional in this story. They are clearly carefully crafted and they evolve and respond realistically to their environment and the events of the novel. They don’t feel flat—they are the driving force of the plot. I felt that I got to know many of the characters well, no matter what size part they play in the grand scheme of things. Just like the worldbuilding, the characters are equally as vivid, detailed, and fully fleshed out. Aaron’s storyline is probably my favorite out of all of them.
My only issue with the characters is that a couple characters are rather unclear or inconsistent, mainly early on. I felt they became clearer pretty quickly, but I had a little trouble connecting with them at first. For instance, in Aaron’s case, I would think I was getting a handle on his personality and then he would do something that seemed out of character, causing me to become confused. There were times when I did not quite understand the motives for a character’s actions and those events were not always cleared up. Again, this is just a very minor issue I had.
Tying in with what I said about the characters being multi-dimensional, Schuren does a good job of clearly indicating how they develop over the course of the story. They learn and grow and evolve. The events that take place and the upheaval they experience consistently affect each character, their actions, and their views of life and the world around them.
Schuren’s writing style is definitely one of the strongest aspects of this novel. I found it very easy to get into and it had a very captivating quality to it. It was not just the story but the way she told it and worded it that held me in the narrative. The writing and the message it sends are both beautiful.
I found Schuren’s worldbuilding to be absolutely fantastic. She creates this extremely detailed and frighteningly realistic picture of what living in a cult is like. She forms both the physical world and the psychological world of these characters through her words. It feels like you are there in the desert—in the supposed safety of the community. You experience the raw emotions and the sinister atmosphere. She really brings this story to life.
This was one of my most anticipated books of the year and it absolutely did not disappoint. It was so easy to become engrossed in this novel and I found it extremely hard to put down. I read through it so fast, just intending to read a couple chapters and realizing a while later I read over one-hundred or more pages. Schuren brings so many interesting elements together to create a story that will quickly draw in readers and open their eyes to topics that are very important and timely. I highly recommend picking this up and giving it a read.