Book Review: House of Salt and Sorrows

From the Goodreads page:

Four of Annaleigh Thaumas’s eleven sisters have returned to the Salt, the brackish water that surrounds their lonely island home, their lives cut short, each more tragically than the last. Whispers throughout the Highmoor estate say the girls have been cursed by the gods.

When Annaleigh finds out that her sisters have been sneaking out to attend glittering midnight balls and dance until dawn, she’s not sure whether to stop them–or join them. And when she begins to see a series of horrific, ghostly visions and more sisters die, she realizes she must solve the mystery–with the help of Cassius, a sea captain who knows much more about her than he should–and unravel the Thaumas curse before she descends into madness or . . . it claims her next.

House of Salt and Sorrows, by Erin A. Craig, is a loose retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale, and is a unique blend of YA fantasy and horror. The book opens with yet another of Annaleigh’s sisters being sent back to the Salt, a burial practice followed by the natives of the remote island she and her family live on. Annaleigh doesn’t think her sister’s death (or the ones before her) were purely accidental, and she decides to try to unravel the mystery of what happened to them before she loses any more of her family. She enlists the help of an old family friend and attempts to enlist the help of her other sisters, but they are distracted by the lure of a magic doorway that takes them to different realms where they dance the nights away amid sparkling castles with handsome elegant dancing partners. Annaleigh begins to wonder if she is losing her grip on reality as things are not what they seem, and visions of horrible ghosts begin to haunt her.

I was expecting more of a true YA Fantasy type book, but this one has a LOT of creepy things going on in it, more in the style of a gothic horror film – think Crimson Peaks. (I’m not a huge fan of the horror genre, so that wasn’t a win for me.) However, the author does a wonderful job creating the world her characters inhabit – it’s a wild and windswept island, battered by the sea, and eerily remote. The descriptions of the settings – the family home, the lighthouse, the ocean, and the magical balls – were all beautifully written and I could imagine all of them in my mind’s eye.

The characters were a little less well developed in my opinion. Annaleigh is a strong main character, and she definitely carries the action and plot along with her. She’s curious, tenacious and obviously cares about her family, even as her father becomes more distant since he’s brought his new wife home. (Annaleigh and her sisters have lost their mother some time in the past and their father has recently remarried; his new bride announces fairly early on in the book that she’s pregnant too. Annaleigh’s older sister, Camille, and their family friend, Fisher, as well as the mysterious sea captain Annaleigh meets in town, Cassius, are all nicely developed characters. Her other sisters, with the exception of the youngest, Verity, are less well-developed and I had a hard time remembering which of the triplets was which. They are more secondary to the plot, but I would have liked a little more to distinguish between them.

I appreciated a return to less Disney version of this fairy tale – which was one of my favorites growing up – and the author’s creative approach to introducing the magic of the balls where the sisters dance their slippers to pieces. I loved Cassius and Annaleigh’s interactions, and her relationship with her older sister, Camille. (It’s obvious they love each other and equally obvious they argue about all the things sisters argue about.) I would have liked to have seen more of Annaleigh’s new stepmother and gotten to know her a little bit more before the end of the story; that seemed a little bit too convenient to tie up loose ends in the last few chapters. I am delighted that Annaleigh got to spend more time in the lighthouse. It is obvious that is her calling and equally delighted the author chose not to have her become a happy fairy princess at the end.

3.5/5 stars: While I liked the writing, world-building and characters, there was just too much creepiness in this book to suit my tastes, so I’m downgrading it a bit more than I probably would have without that element. This is book 6/20 in my #20booksofsummer challenge.

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