Author: Erin A. Craig
Genre: YA Fantasy/Horror
Rating: 4/5 stars
A horror-infused twist on “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig is a haunting and original debut novel.
I don’t like the blurb provided for this book. It gives too much away. Don’t read it; read mine instead:
The book tells the story of Annaleigh, one of eight daughters of the duke on a small but prosperous island. There were once twelve daughters, but in the past six years—ever since their mother died—four of the girls have died, all in startling and gruesome ways. Rumor has it that the family is cursed, and the residents of the island want nothing to do with them as a result. So when Annaleigh’s childhood friend Fisher shows her and her sisters a magic portal that can take them anywhere, the girls are thrilled to be able to escape the mourning and rumors shrouding their house and travel to balls in far-off cities. But while sneaking off to dance every night provides a welcome reprieve, all is not well. Verity, the youngest daughter, is drawing horrible pictures in her sketchbook. Annaleigh suspects her sisters’ deaths may not have been accidental, and she is seeing terrifying illusions that disappear when she looks closer. And she is quickly falling for a mysterious new boy, but she doesn’t know whether she can really trust him.
So, let’s start with the easy part: this book was incredibly original. In a year where the book market, especially the YA market, has been flooded with fairytale retellings, Erin A. Craig has managed to dig up a less-popular one and turn it into something both creepy and magical. There is a distinct horror vibe alongside the more obvious fantasy elements of the book, and Annaleigh’s own terror and recognition of her unreliable senses only heighten this effect. The fact that it wasn’t a straight-up classic fantasy story made it immensely more enjoyable for me as a reader, and as someone familiar with the original fairytale, I was delighted by how many elements of the traditional story Craig managed to include in the story (including one cleverly inverted detail). The worldbuilding was quite well done,, with a fully-developed series of nations, their interwoven religions and traditions, and a unique interaction between people and their gods. Obviously the most attention is paid to the island of Salten, where the girls live, and the nautical vibes are constant and captivating. It’s like you are diving (pun intended) into this dark fairytale landscape.
For the most part, the characters worked well, too. Distinctly characterizing eight sisters, a dozen or so other side players, can be difficult, but for the most part, Craig managed to pull this off as well. Sure, she had some cop-outs—three of the girls are triplets who are very much in sync with each other, for example—but on the whole, the motivations and reactions of each person had at least a moderate level of complexity. Annaleigh is a likable enough protagonist, not too fierce but not a wimp either. Her sisters have distinct personalities, from dramatic Rosalie to sweet little Verity. The character of Annaleigh’s father was particularly interesting to me, alternating between doting husband, loving father, and angry drunk. I was enamored by Verity, six years old and innocent, but also haunted and sometimes disturbing. And Annaleigh’s mystery boy, Cassius, is enigmatic but incredibly sweet.
But, see, this is part of where my problem was. As you might expect, there’s a romance between Annaleigh and Cassius, because you can’t have a strange, dark, good-looking boy without him becoming a huge love interest. The problem was, the romance just didn’t work for me. I liked both of the characters in it, but they fell for each other a little too quickly, and it felt inorganic. The depth of their devotion after so little time together just did not make sense in my mind. Maybe it’s just because he was Annaleigh’s first real love, not counting a stray childhood crush on another boy, but it still didn’t feel right to me. And in light of certain explanations near the end of the book, their love became even weirder to me, though I think some people might find those reasons romantic.
Speaking of the end of the book: holy crap, those last 100 pages or so were a WILD ride. So many twists and turns, and while some of them I saw coming from a mile away, some of them were a genuine shock (and there was at least one I should have seen coming, but didn’t). I think I got a bit of mental whiplash, though, with too many twists in too little time. The direction that those twists took the story also pulled it away from the horror vibe, which I had loved so much, and more into typical fantasy tropes. It wasn’t bad, by any means; it just wasn’t the direction I had hoped for. And, in light of that shift in the final quarter of the book, I think the very ending—in the epilogue—was both appropriate and expected.
In conclusion: definitely a book worth reading, especially if you want a little spookiness in your fairytales. It’s not perfect, but it is compulsively readable, and especially for a debut novel, it is nicely done. I am greatly looking forward to whatever Erin A. Craig comes up with next!
Content/trigger warnings: death of animals (off-page, but the bodies are seen), discussion of suicide