Hello, everyone! Halloween has come and gone, but that doesn’t mean the spooky season has to end. This week I read Erin A. Craig’s fantasy novel House of Salt and Sorrows, a loose adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairytale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” with a gothic twist. Ever since I laid eyes on its gorgeous cover, I’ve had this book on my must-read list. And it actually lived up to my high expectations!
Quick synopsis: As one of twelve daughters born to the Duke of the Salaan Islands, Annaleigh had led an idyllic life. But when death comes to her family’s beloved seaside palace, striking down three of her elder sisters in quick succession, the islanders begin to murmur about a family curse. When Eulalie, the 4th eldest, falls from the cliffs to her death, Annaleigh begins to think there is evil afoot. With the help of the handsome Cassius, the son of a local captain, Annaleigh tries to uncover the truth behind her family’s tragedy, and unearths a trove of dark secrets along the way.
My thoughts: Imagine if Charlotte Brontë took a stab at adapting a German fairytale, and you’d have Erin A. Craig’s House of Salt and Sorrows. As a huge fan of gothic novels, I loved Craig’s spooky spin on a classic tale. Her descriptions of the islands that Annaleigh calls home are incredibly vivid, so much so that you can almost taste the salt in the air, and feel the sea-breeze against your skin. Highmoor, the main setting of the novel, is like a maritime version of Jane Eyre’s Thornfield Hall, filled with drafty corridors, ghostly apparitions, and even a symbolic fire to round it all out.
While the original “Twelve Dancing Princesses” tale is certainly bizarre, it could hardly be described as spooky, and I enjoyed Craig’s unique spin on the story. Instead of doing a paint-by-numbers adaptation, she made it wholly her own, mixing in influences of Greek mythology, gothic horror, and Edgar Allen Poe inspired bouts of insanity, all while retaining the fairytale bones of the original. There is a lot going on in this book in terms of creative influences, but it all felt cohesive to me. Craig is a skilled world-builder, and though it was never clear exactly in what era, fantasy or otherwise, the story is set, her beautiful descriptions of the characters’ costumes, the architecture, and the culture of the islands, allowed the world to come alive. It’s the type of novel that is begging for a film adaptation.
Although the story is an adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairytale, I would say that the dancing princesses aspect of the story is more of a background for the plot than the main attraction. The meat of the story centers around the mystery of Annaleigh’s sisters’ deaths, and the dancing princesses part of the story is the vehicle that allows Annaleigh to uncover the answer to the book’s central mystery. This was fine with me, as I found the mystery suspenseful and engaging, and even though I figured it out before the big reveal, I wasn’t disappointed by the ending of the novel. Writing a good mystery is no easy feat, and I was pleasantly surprised by Craig’s ability to combine fantasy, magic, horror, and mystery into one novel.
While I enjoyed the many interwoven elements in this novel, there are times when the plot gets to be too complicated. The last third of the novel is bursting with story reveals that all happen at break-neck speed and are confusing enough to require reading a page twice over. That said, I disagree with some readers who found the story to be overstuffed, and think Craig’s ambitious plotting paid off. Writing a story about a dozen sisters, all with their own quirks and personalities, as well as adding in love interests, parents, and side characters, would make any narrative start to seem claustrophobic, and Craig does her best to give all of her characters their required narrative space.
My one qualm is that I would have liked to see more depth from the relationship between Annaleigh and Cassius, because their love felt a tad too contrived for me. Call me crazy, but I don’t think that every fantasy adaptation needs a romance, and this book wouldn’t have suffered without one. The relationships between Annaleigh and her sisters, and Annaleigh and her father, were far more nuanced and thought-provoking than her predictable romance with Cassius, as well as the “blink-and-you’ll miss it” love triangle with her childhood friend Fisher. To be fair, however, House of Salt and Sorrows is still part of the YA fantasy genre, so while I found the romance underwhelming, I understand that it’s one of the most important conditions of the genre.
My favorite thing about this book was that it subverted my expectations. Fairytale adaptations can be wonderful (see the works of Naomi Novik or Juliet Marillier) or woefully subpar (see Crimson Bound), but they are usually constricted in some way by the boundaries of the original fairytale. Craig took a story that has been adapted dozens of times and truly transformed it into something unrecognizable. From a paper-thin tale of dancing sisters, she spun a story about sisterhood, femininity, and sibling rivalry, meditated on the ideas of grief, mourning, and personal responsibility, and wove in elements of Greek tragedy and English horror. I can’t ask for more than that.
Final Consensus: If you’re looking for a ghostly tale of horror and magic, then this is the book for you. Come for the dazzling descriptions of Craig’s isolated island kingdom, and stay for her compelling blend of fantasy and mystery. But if you’re scared of things that go bump in the night, don’t read this book before bed, or you might find yourself hearing the wind howl in your ear, and dreaming of ghostly footsteps outside your doorway.