Title: House of Salt and Sorrows
Author: Erin A. Craig
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy
Version: ARC – ebook
Page Count: 416
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Notable Notables: Fairytale retelling, spooky AF
Recommended Readers: Fans of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and ghost stories
Thank you, NetGalley and the publisher, for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig is a haunting debut that pulls no punches, and I hope Craig is so proud of it because I certainly am! This book delivered everything I had wanted out of The Wicked Deep–a maritime setting, a spooky mystery, and murder most foul–and cranked everything up to eleven.
The novel opens with a funeral. Annaleigh Thaumas is once again returning one of her sisters to the Salt after she mysteriously plunged to her death. Three others have been returned to the sea, and she, her father, and her seven remaining sisters have been steeped in mourning for years. That changes when her father’s new bride announces she’s pregnant. Thus, the Highmoor estate does what it never has before: it moves on.
Or it tries to. Despite preparing for their first debutante ball, the Thaumas sisters are haunted by gossip of a curse laid upon the women of their family by the gods. Armed with new dresses and “fairy shoes,” the sisters begin sneaking out of the estate, slipping through a magical door to attend grand balls and dance with partners who are unaware of the curse. Despite how wonderful the dances seem, something is not quite right, and Annaleigh begins seeing visions of her dead sisters and other horrific things–and then the curse strikes again. To unravel the Thaumas curse, Annaleigh accepts the help of Cassius, an outsider who knows more about her and her family than he should, but who or what can she really trust when her visions aim to drive her mad?
I’ve never actually read “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” so I can’t comment on how true or original this standalone book is compared to the fairytale. What I do know is that, most of the time, I was utterly riveted. Annaleigh and her sister Camille are so vivid, and most of her other sisters also feel like their own people, given three of them are near inseparable triplets and three others are very young. Craig does a wonderful job juggling such a large cast while keeping Annaleigh as the prime focus for telling the story.
The world-building is also fresh, from the islands the Thaumas family calls home to lands beyond their borders. Even if we aren’t at the latter for very long, there are still many interesting, small touches applied to make them feel real and stand out. Much of the world-building also applies to the culture of the characters, which is why it stands out in ways a lot of YA world-building doesn’t.
I admit, it took me a minute to catch on that the gods each people worshiped are actually real in the story, not just believed to be real. Once I realized that the goddess of love often walked among mortals, I became extremely enamored of how House of Salt and Sorrows presented its mythology. If anything, I wish for infinitely more of it, especially more of Viscardi, the trickster god of bargains.
However, I am equally enamored with Annaleigh and her family. Her bond with her sisters could be as harmonious as it was motherly or chaotic. Her father also demonstrates admirable and terrible qualities, as do her stepmother; in short, everyone feels completely, fallibly human, a rarity in the black-and-white realm of fairytales.
The ghostly element, however, is what really makes this book shine. Annaleigh’s visions sent chills down my spine, and Craig is masterful at making them seem real and vivid and then disproving them the next. You identify so incredibly with Annaleigh’s perspective and her fears of going insane because you can’t readily identify what’s real and what’s not, either. It’s been awhile since I’ve found such a horror/psychological element pulled off in YA with such finesse and with utterly no fear. Note, though, that there are some visions Annaleigh has that are legitimately disturbing, so take care of yourself. I love them, though.
Really, the main complaint I have for this book that keeps it from being a five-star (other than more stuff about the gods, especially Viscardi) is because of Annaleigh’s love interest, Cassius. He actually starts off fairly intriguing, but once his mystery is unraveled, I found myself bored by him. He feels so much like a plot device used to just get Annalaigh where she needs to go, and nothing else. The sparks between them die after his big reveal and how he “knows” her, so I couldn’t believe these sudden declarations of love. Their relationship is so much more promising before any of this happens, and his presence taints the ending of the book. Overall, I would have enjoyed it more without him being there, keeping the finale of House of Salt and Sorrows about the Thaumas family and the Thaumas family only.
Despite this lackluster relationship, Craig knows how to keep her story interesting. There are so many twists in this book, a few I saw coming, but she never just leaves it there. There’s always something else that pulls the rug out from the predictability, leaving me blinking at the page like, “Whoa, did that really just happen?” I’m not saying “predictability” in a bad way, either. Rather, Craig does an amazing job of balancing reader’s expectations towards where the story is naturally progressing while also finding ways to surprise you that also make complete sense. It’s not shock value. It’s an honest to God plot twist, and it is so refreshing.
When all is said and done, House of Salt and Sorrows is a marvelous retelling presented uniquely and viscerally, full of hope, love, and also tragedy. It’s a mystery, it’s a fantasy, it’s a ghost story. It makes me want to go to mysterious midnight balls, consequences be damned. (And it gave me another problematic fav, which is always, always a plus.) As a debut novel and standalone, it’s a cut above so many of its kind. If Craig is already this talented, I’m beyond eager to see what else she writes and how her imagination will take over.