The House of Salt and Sorrows (HOSAS) pulls you in and holds you captive in this fascinating world of gods and gowns, family tableaux and kingdom politics, and flawed familial characters. The proud traditions of the island hemmed them in as much as the sea does especially when dealing with loss.
I’m probably not its “target audience.” I’m a 60-year-old guy who reads more sci-fi and fantasy than anything else. That’s not to say I have no love for stories based on the brothers Grimm, Gothic tales or murder mysteries, I’ve just never come across one that combines them all in a “Twilight Zone meets Dancing with the Stars” episode (OK that’s a bit of a stretch). I could not help but love Annaleigh, Fisher, Cassius and all of the crew. HOSAS is clever with solid writing, multidimensional characters and surprises around every corner. Its milieu is moody-gothic but also one built on logic. Annaleigh’s reason often lives in tension with her experiences.
Phrasing/wordsmith: Ms. Craig’s dialogue is crisp, evokes each character’s personality, position, and age while moving the story along nicely. There are some clever uses of various techniques to provide exposition, but they’re done in such a way that you’re never pulled out of the story; she definitely has a penchant for showing more than describing. The writing moves the story along with providing a sense of place and time while not drawing attention to itself. It is the vehicle for the narrative.
World building: In a literary world populated with endless riffs on old fairytales, fantasy and paranormal galore, as well as thrillers of every shape and size, Ms. Craig pulls a unique rabbit out of her literary hat. Highmoor and the Salann Islands are intriguing in themselves, even if they were placed just in our world simply as working coastal towns. In HOSAS, the gods walk among the people, but it is rare and effects little of the day-to-day interaction of those in Salann. It does however deeply affect the rituals of death and life as well as thought patterns, language and most directly, the decor at Highmoor. She cleverly uses a different pantheon of gods then either the Greeks or the Romans. To have so much of her world of the novel grounded in the prosaic and every day provides sharp relief for when the gods become involved in the story. I also how the flaws of most of the characters as depth, albeit some have more imperfections than others. I don’t know if Erin Craig is from a family of many sisters, but the familial life of the Thaumases seems genuine and, initially, genuinely lovely. We will find out that not all is as it appears to be and even appearances aren’t perfect, but through the backdrop of tragedy, family members show how much they deeply care for one another. Annaleigh is the least self-focused and most caring among them and this will ultimately change the course of events for the better. Love does indeed win.
There’s just the right mix of the influence of the gods, with an almost paranormal/thriller feel to the story, to provide the twist of originality. All of this is intermixed with the different geopolitical areas of the world. We mainly live in the world of salty waves, but we travel to high mountains and hot deserts as well. These are all people of place which affect the gods they follow, and their daily life of dress talk and decoration. Arcannia is a kingdom among many. Within it, Salann consists of 5 islands across the Kaleic Sea. Selkirk is northeast and tied to fishing. Astrea is full of shops, markets & taverns and then there’s Salten, the island on which Highmoor (the manor house of the duchy) is located. Finally, Hesperus an island with an important lighthouse. Each island has only one town.
Character: All of these categories intertwine, especially in the due to how entwined characters are with their location. Annaleigh seems nearly perfect. The Triplets are eerily one, Camille, oldest and most self-focused sister is but not actually a terrible sister. Fisher, a family friend, now lighthouse apprentice and, overall good guy who, at first blush, seems to be the “nice guy” that never gets the girl. Alas. Both Annaleigh and Camille had crushes on him when young. Cassius is a good-looking mysterious guy for whom Annaleigh falls but is more than he seems. The Duke Ortun appears to be good Dad except for hints of an ugly (and arrogant) side. Rounding out the family circle it the new bride, Lysbette, a mysterious figure herself. As their backstories unravel through the tale, their relationships become more complex.
Narrative – I was totally caught up I HOSAS. Let me put it this way. I have access to Netflix, Prime Video, Spotify and all the local movies I could desire, yet I spent all my free time with The House of Salt and Sorrows. As I break down various parts of the story, I don’t fully do justice to the whole.This clever murder mystery embedded in a fantastical moody world with (mostly) full-bodied characters relating to one another in interesting ways wrapped in spot-on writing while creating something new and original brings is the alchemical bond of the novel that sparks magic. The pacing is nearly perfect with enough movement to keep you holding on and enough space to build characters and evoke its own special mood. It really is fabulous.
I went between the Kindle and Audible versions of HOSAS often listening to Emily Lawrence’s fine narration. Her pacing and annunciation throughout the story was spot on and her voice embodied Annaleigh whilst clearly demarking each character she took on.
World Building: 5/5
A Little Book Music (section wherein I recommend some background music to read by)
- “Wreak of the Umbria” by Jakub Ciupinski performed by Anne Akiko Myers on Mirror in Mirror (Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Kristjan Järvi). In fact, go for the whole album.
- Pretty much the entire soundtrack to Macbeth by Jed Kurzel
- “La Sonnambula” (sleep walking) – try the Pavarotti version with Sutherland
- “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” as well as the rest of the dance music from Tchaiikovsky: The Nutcracker – Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic
- Die Fledermaus (“the Bat”) especially the Overture – NDR Radiophilharmonia, Lawerence Fosters conducts
- “Six Bells Chime”, “Adventure” & “Goddess” – Crime & City Solution
- Nightbook – Ludovico Einaudi
Spoiler alert section
Over time, it becomes clear that a goddess is messing with their view of reality. This goddess is inside their heads making them have experiences and see things that simply aren’t there. Leading them for her own ends, she relishes and enjoys their destruction. It’s very easy to lose an audience, especially me, when you mess with the protagonist’s ability to discern true from false. This especially causes difficulties when lots of the dialog is first person narrative. If you do it too much, the reader becomes un-invested in what’s happening because they no longer can trust that if they feel sorrow, it’s based on truly sad circumstances. Similarly, elation at saving someone may not, in fact, be saving anyone. You tend to simply shut off the connection because you’re not sure ever if your connection is to what’s genuinely happening in the story. Ms. Craig rides that fine line like a surfer holding on to a high wave. She’s able to morph the reality so that we join in and feel the sheer frustration and panic of not knowing what’s real while at the same time containing that that part of the storyline enough so that the frustration does not build to the reading experience. That balancing act was somewhat genius.
There are some logistical difficulties. Lysbette is already married to Ortun before he knows about having a child, but part of the reason she enters into the bargain is to have a child so he will have to marry her. Unless of course she lied to Annaleigh when she said he didn’t know and he acted as if he didn’t know. Their ravishing Morella together and causing her to have boys at the same time from two different fathers is a little bit weird and unlikely in our normal world. Also, it strikes me as a little challenging to get Ortun to be willing to join in the festivities with another although he apparently gave into his baser instincts much more readily than we would’ve thought at the beginning of the book. In both these cases, I think there’s plausible explanations you can put forward but they’re not ideal. Does this ruin the story for me? By no means. It remains a fabulous story.