Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.
“I turned the page and saw a drawing of all four of them, watching Verity as she slept, hanging from nooses. In disgust, I dropped the notebook, and sheets of loose papers—dozens of sketches of my sisters—escaped. They exploded across the hall like macabre confetti. In the pictures, they were doing things, ordinary things, things I’d seen them do all my life, but in every drawing they were unmistakably and horribly dead.”
Ever since her mother died giving birth to her youngest sister, Annaleigh and her father and sisters have lived in a state of constant mourning. Four of her older sisters have also died under mysterious circumstances, leading to rumours of a curse that haunts the Thaumas sisters. The latest is her sister Eulalie, who fell to her death from the cliffs of Highmoor at midnight—or perhaps she was pushed? Despite Eulalie’s death, the Thaumas sisters are sick of mourning, and even their father has finally remarried, bringing his new wife Morella back to the islands off the coast of Arcannia that the People of the Salt call home. When they discover a secret door—supposedly used by the sea god Pontus to travel vast distances—the remaining sisters begin to spend their nights visiting all the best balls Arcannia has to offer, dancing the night away to forget their grief. But Annaleigh can’t shake the feeling that she and her sisters are still in danger, and that something dark really is haunting the halls of Highmoor.
House of Salt and Sorrows builds on the fairy tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, whose father locks them in their room each night, only to find that they have worn out their shoes come morning. Stumped by the crumbling shoes, their father charges his daughters’ suitors with solving the mystery. When Annaleigh’s father decides that the family will throw off their mourning weeds, he buys each of his surviving daughters a beautiful pair of fairy slippers from the finest cobbler, yet when he returns from a business trip, he find that the shoes are already falling apart. Belief in the Thaumas curse has left most men wary of courting the Duke’s daughters, but in a drunken temper, he promises a handsome reward to anyone who can figure out what the girls are up to.
Erin A. Craig employs a creepy, atmospheric setting in the dark, old family estate of Highmoor, set by the sea as winter approaches. I was reading this book on a sunny summer day at the lake, but it felt more like the kind of read that suits a dark and stormy winter night. The gothic elements contrast with the growing romance between Annaleigh and Cassius, the illegitimate son of a sea captain, who has come to the island to care for his sick father. Cassius doesn’t seem to believe in the curse, but perhaps Annaleigh’s fortune is the real allure? Mistrust permeates everything, even new love.
Although the story has a fairy tale basis, the psychological elements are perhaps more important. Annaleigh begins to suspect that there is something more than coincidence to her sisters’ deaths—and it isn’t a curse. She digs into Eulalie’s secrets, suspecting murder, even as she begins to see and hear things, and discovers that her youngest sister believes she has been talking to the ghosts of her dead siblings, even those she is too young to remember. Annaleigh begins to have terrible nightmares that feel all too real, leaving the borderline between reality and imagination blurry at best. Reality is subjective, and the ground is constantly shifting in this twisty tale.
While this story was extremely promising, some of the supernatural elements could have been better integrated. It wasn’t immediately clear that this was a world with gods operating in the world, though perhaps this is because I was expecting faeries, or something more in keeping with the original source material. The first clear hint of this comes when a dressmaker intimates that she has had the honour of designing a gown for the goddess of love, but other deities show up later who were never previously mentioned. It can be difficult to surprise readers without leaving them feeling tricked. Bringing in more of the pantheon earlier in the story might have helped with this dissonance. The balance between the psychological elements of horror and the actual fantastical elements is also hard to strike, and the integration is somewhat uneven. This mars an otherwise promising tale that ably employs an eerie atmosphere alongside well-drawn sibling relationships.
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