Book Review: House of Salt and Sorrows


My copy of the book.

I expected to walk into a fairy tale, and instead, walked into something fairly hellacious, courtesy of Erin Craig’s 2019 novel, House of Salt and Sorrows. As I mentioned with my previous book review, Anatomy: A Love Story, I’m trying out a book club for the first time on Tuesday, and both of these books are the paired selection. As with Anatomy: A Love Story, I was skeptical of Craig’s book. Not that I’m against young adult books; after, I absolutely adore Harry Potter and they remain the only books I’ve read more than twice. Only, I’m skeptical such a book will resonate me. And yet, again, I find myself pleasantly admitting to being wrong: Craig’s book turned out to be quite the page-turner, and far more horrific than I expected. Spoiler alert: When you bring the Harbinger of Madness and Nightmares into the fray, that sort of thing gets under skin. If I have any potent fears, chief among them is losing my mind and not being able to trust reality.

The story is set in a fantasy land of sorts, where there is a kingdom of different peoples, from the People of the Stars to our people, the People of the Salt, the seafaring types, who live under a fabulously wealthy duke, Ortun, builder of ships for the kingdom. Within this kingdom, they also believe in a pantheon of gods, from Versia, the Goddess of Night and Skies (for the People of the Stars), to Pontus, the God of the Seas (for the People of the Salt), and many others, including their opposites, the Tricksters.

Ortun had a wife, who died shortly after birthing him a 12th daughter, aka the Thaumas Dozen. The book begins with the death of one of those daughters, Eulalie, who I believe was first in line to inherit Ortun’s wealth and estate, Highmoor, once he died (he didn’t care about bequeathing his estate to a male). She supposedly died after falling from a cliff. Before her, Ava died from the plague, Octavia due to a fall from a ladder, and Elizabeth to drowning in a bathtub. After Eulalie’s death, the surviving sisters are the triplets Rosalie, Ligeia, and Lenore; Camille, who is next in line to inherit Ortun’s estate; Honor, Mercy, and Verity (the youngest), known as the Graces; and our primary protagonist, Annaleigh, who is second in line behind Camille. Even though she is second in line, and thus, Camille the oldest, Annaleigh seems more the motherly figure to her younger sisters than does Camille.

Adding to this mix is Morella, the stepmother. If red flags are springing before your eyes, duh! It’s a fairy tale with a stepmother! Red flags sprang before my eyes, too, especially when it’s Morella who a.) announces that she’s pregnant with a son; and b.) thinks the Thaumas Dozen and Ortun need to forget their grieving traditions, where they grieve for an entire year after a death has occurred, and start living again, wearing bright colors and eating lemon cakes.

In addition to foregoing their grief, the sisters have the pressure of would-be suitors hanging over their heads, especially Camille, as the one next to inherit Highmoor. In fact, there’s a rather gross scene later in the book when Ortun bring his shipping buddies to Highmoor for an annual tradition, and these men get drunk and discuss trying to win the hand of the girls, without their say. Basically, Ortun puts forth in a drunk stupor, if any of the men present can figure out the mystery of the girls’ rapidly, perpetually deteriorating shoes, then they get the pick of them, and by implication, that means they likely would pick Camille and inherit Ortun’s fortunes.

So, the shoes. Fisher, the apprentice of the Keeper of the Light at Old Maud, the name for the lighthouse, returns to Highmoor. He’s a longtime childhood friend of the family’s and particularly, Annaleigh’s. He’s smitten by her it seems, although, it’s an unrequited affair. He’s the one who introduces the idea of those aforementioned gods using secret doors and passageways to quickly move about the kingdom. The sisters are eager to find the door. They do! And when they go through it, they end up at a fancy ball dancing the night away at some other far corner of the kingdom where nobody knows about them being cursed. They become intoxicated by the allure of dances and balls and fancy gowns and men beckoning them to dance, they do it every single night. If you were previously weighed down by grief and mourning, the appeal of this secret door to splendor and fun is readily apparent.

However, we know something awful is afoot, because through our protagonist, Annaleigh, we learn she’s suspicious of the way Eulalie died, thinking someone pushed her off the cliff to her death. Then Eulalie’s would-be suitor, a lowly watchmaker’s apprentice, also dies, also seemingly pushed from a second-story window. On top of that, Verity is seeing ghosts, and not just any ghosts, but the ghosts of her dead sisters, and then drawing horrific images of their deaths — their manner of death she couldn’t possibly have known about. Annaleigh is obviously freaked out by this, and confused, not knowing what to make of it all. Are the sisters cursed, after all? Is that why those within their part of the kingdom of skeptical of marrying them?

At one of these balls, Annaleigh meets Cassius, a man she is immediately smitten with, and he seems taken in by her, too. I was already red flagging the stepmother, but I was, of course, skeptical of Cassius, too. When Fisher mentions his worry about Cassius to Annaleigh after two of the triplets, Rosalie and Ligeia, are sadly found frozen to death outside (and while holding hands, as they entered the earth, so as they leave it), Annaleigh begins to wonder if the man she’s been locking lips with is actually the one killing his sisters. When she confronts him, Cassius whisks her away to the People of the Stars’ area, where we learn that Cassius is the son of Versia, thus, half god. And the reason he seemed suspicious before, knowing things about the sisters and Annaleigh he shouldn’t have known, is because the dead sisters are in the Brine, some sort of after death sanctum. That also means Verity hasn’t been seeing ghosts. So, what’s going on?

We find out soon enough. After yet another jaunt to a ball in a faraway place, Annaleigh is awoken in terror by Cassius, inexplicably awakened in her room after having a nightmarish experience at the ball. Cassius shows her that Camille, Mercy, Verity, all of the sisters, are dancing by themselves in their room, as if with someone else, as if at one of these balls. In other words, it’s all a horrible, nightmarish illusion. The image of Camille dancing with someone who wasn’t there, dipping in ways not physically possible without the help of a dance partner, genuinely made my skin crawl.

When a ship crashes because the light from Old Maud is gone, Cassius and Annaleigh rush to restore the light, because Annaleigh always dreamt of being the Keeper of the Light, but Fisher was chosen for the task instead of her. Upon arriving at the lighthouse, they find the old Keeper of the Light dead, and Fisher dead. What emerges from Fisher is Kosamaras, the Weeping Woman, Cassius’ aunt, and the Harbinger of Madness and Nightmares. All along, it has been she who has poisoned the minds of the sisters to make them think fancy balls and dancing were happening — to make Annaleigh and the rest of the sisters even believe Fisher was still alive! The reason she’s doing that is at the behest of Viscardi, the Trickster, who himself is doing it because of a bargain he made with some mortal who thought they could make an airtight bargain with the devil, so to speak, but they can’t win, and in so losing, a curse did befall the Thaumas Dozen.

After Annaleigh realizes this, she goes back to Highmoor to tell her dad and sisters, but in a trippy scene, the Harbinger of Madness and Nightmares has poisoned the minds of her dad and sisters to made them think a.) Annaleigh not only killed the other sisters, but most recently killed Verity, who is missing; and b.) that Cassius never existed, and that Annaleigh went to Fisher’s funeral weeks ago, even though she just saw him dead. Annaleigh rightly feels like she’s losing her mind and the only way to end the madness is to start pounding on her head, as if it to shove the madness out of her ears. Before any of that can continue, though, we come back to Morella, who has sneakily been missing-in-action for a good chunk of the latter half of the book. She’s having twin boys. Now, premature. The first son is stillborn and dead. That’s when Annaleigh circles back to realizing none of Morella’s story makes sense. Since she’s likely to die, Morella confesses: She was a midwife for Ortun’s previous wife and sought to elope with Ortun, but he turned her down because she was a lowly midwife. So, Morella made the bargain with the Trickster to ensure she married Ortun and birthed him a son. Along the way, she killed their mother, Eulalie, Eulalie’s suitor, I believe, as well as two of the triplets. The Trickster himself appears and explains to Morella that he indeed granted her wish: Was the stillborn son not a male? Morella never specified that he had to be alive. Womp womp. The Trickster kills her.

Meanwhile, Highmoor is crumbling from flames sparked by a lightning strike, and we find out that Verity is still alive and saved at his own mortal peril by Cassius. I’m not exactly sue why Cassius, also a half god, didn’t have more power to confront the Harbinger of Madness and Nightmares and the Trickster, but nevertheless. At the end of the novel, the sisters make wishes the way the People of the Stars do, and Versia grants them. Naturally, Annaleigh’s wish was for Cassius to return to her alive, and he does.

One other plot point I’m not sure about: Did Morella also kill Ava and Octavia? And I thought it was weird the sisters didn’t seem to mourn much — nor was it spelled out by Craig, in my opinion — the death of their father. It was just like, okay, Camille is the head of the estate now. Bye, dad.

Anyhow, I thought House of Salt and Sorrows was a classic fairy tale story in terms of their being a dozen sisters trying to survive an apparent curse upon their family and the stepmother being suspicious and then wicked, with glamorous dresses, shoes, balls, dancing, romance and love intermixed, but also, Craig subverted my expectations with the Harbinger of Madness and Nightmares, who indeed brought the madness and made my skin crawl. Madness freaks me out and makes me despair for the characters (how are they going to survive someone who can bend reality to their will, and with their sanity intact?).

If you’re looking for a fun little read, and perhaps have your Notes app ready to keep track of all of the sisters as I did, then I’d recommend this genre-bending and crossing book.

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