House of Salt and Sorrows
by Erin A. Craig
Young Adult / Fantasy
Published August 2019
First off (and I know this is a minor quibble) I think the title should have simply been House of Salt. As is, it falls into the recent trend of “Noun of Noun and Noun.” Children of Blood and Bone, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Queen of Air and Darkness, Girls of Paper and Fire, Ship of Smoke and Steel – it’s a common trope in Young Adult titles, it feels like, and House of Salt would have been a perfectly good title for the book.
Salt plays a heavy role in this tale; Annaleigh and her sisters, along with their father and stepmother, live in a manor house overlooking the sea, on one of several small islands that form her father’s duchy. The world as a whole has a pantheon of gods that are recognized everywhere – and often show up and interact with the people – but the islands mostly revere Pontus, the god of the sea. They call themselves the People of the Salt; from salt they came, and to salt they eventually return. Their religious rites involve ocean creatures and seawater – even to drinking a small swallow of it on First Night to remind themselves what they’re made of.
Past that, there is a lot of mourning in this book, so salt, by way of tears, is important too. The book opens with the funeral of Annaleigh’s older sister, Eulalie. She slipped and fell off a seaside cliff to her death on the rocks below. Her death follows Elizabeth, (dead from a fall off a library ladder), Octavia (drowned in the bath), and Ava (dead of the plague at eighteen). All four of them preceded by their mother, who died in childbirth of the youngest daughter.
The deaths, and the setting, contribute to make this tale a very gothic one, which I loved. Mysterious deaths, questions of sanity, stormy seas, rocky cliffs, foreboding manor full of secrets – this is my JAM, and I was utterly entranced by it. The author does a fantastic job of creating the slow-building horror, the creeping feeling of doom, the questions of what is actually real, ramping up the pressure until the last few chapters come out in a rush of activity and reveals and consequences. It is EXCELLENT.
The book is loosely based on the fairy tale of the dancing princesses, where the princesses wear out their shoes each night, to the befuddlement of their parents, who offer a reward to anyone who can solve the mystery. (They’ve been escaping to the fairy realm each night to dance the night away.) Mix that tale with gothic horror, and you end up with this gem of a book.
This book absolutely belongs on my Best of 2019 list. If you like gothic tales, pick this one up. You won’t regret it!
From the cover of House of Salt and Sorrows:
Annaleigh lives a sheltered life at Highmoor, a manor by the sea, with her sisters and their father and stepmother. Once there were twelve, but loneliness fills the grand halls now that four of the girls’ lives have been cut short. Each death was more tragic than the last – the plague, a plummeting fall, a drowning, a slippery plunge – and there are whispers throughout the surrounding villages that the family is cursed by the gods.
Disturbed by a series of ghostly visions, Annaleigh becomes increasingly suspicious that her sisters’ deaths were no accidents. The girls have been sneaking out every night to attend glittering balls, dancing until dawn in silk gowns and shimmering slippers, and Annaleigh isn’t sure whether to try to stop them or to join their forbidden trysts. Because who – or what – are they really dancing with?
When Annaleigh’s involvement with a mysterious stranger who has secrets of his own intensifies, it’s a race to unravel the darkness that has fallen over her family – before it claims her next.