House of Salt and Sorrows is Erin A. Craig’s reimagining of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, except this time, the sisters aren’t just dancing, they’re dying; the question is, are their deaths coincidental, or is something more sinister at work?
The book has a strong beginning, opening in the midst of the fourth sister’s funeral and quickly introducing us to our protagonist, sixth sister Annaleigh Thaumas, her remaining sisters, father, and young step-mother, along with the setting of their island home and rather gothic-sounding mansion, Highmoor. At this point, the deaths are not especially suspicious; an illness, a suspected suicide, and two tragic accidents spread over the course of a few years. The fact that they’ve all happened to a single family, however, has prompted whispers in the village of a possible curse upon the Thaumas family. Annaleigh doesn’t believe in any curse, but she does have questions about the most recent death; her sister Eulalie fell from a cliff near their home at night in spite of having no apparent reason to be there so late and a strong distaste for heights. Where was she going? Was she meeting someone?
While Annaleigh investigates, other strange things begin happening. Her father breaks with tradition and ends their mourning after only a few days when it’s revealed his new wife is pregnant, earning more whispers and scorn from the villagers. Her youngest sister, Verity, draws gruesome images of their dead sisters, with details she couldn’t possibly know about, and claims to see them roaming the house at night, and Annaleigh fears she’s starting to see them too. Then, she and her sisters discover a doorway that allows them to travel anywhere they desire and begin spending night after night at various balls, trying to escape the gloom and fear of home with mixed results.
It’s a great set-up, and I was immediately drawn in, eager to find out just exactly what’s happening at Highmoor. But House of Salt and Sorrow is a slow burn, which sucks some of the tension and urgency out of the story, so, while it certainly came across as spooky, it never actually managed to be scary to me, in spite of its strong gothic atmosphere. The mystery also gets a bit sidelined about halfway through in favor of a mysterious love-interest storyline which continued to dominate more and more of the plot as the book went on. I didn’t dislike the love interest, but I would have preferred more of Annaleigh uncovering the mystery herself rather than him pulling back the curtain for her.
The actual solution to the mystery of what’s haunting the Thaumas family, and the final confrontation, certainly live up to the idea of a gothic-fantasy story, but I’m not convinced they were set up in the strongest possible way. I have to say, I guessed the “who” part of the answer from chapter one, though I’d hoped at that point my expectations were going to be purposely subverted. But then there’s a little detail given out just over halfway through the book that pretty well told me my guess about who would be right, it was just going to be a matter of figuring out how and why. The “how” reveal felt a bit like a deus ex machina (or, I suppose since it’s an antagonistic force, a devil ex machina) and the “why” was weirdly both clear and muddy at the same time. It’s hard to describe exactly without giving away spoilers, but let’s just say I get why the party responsible did it, but I’m not entirely sure what motivated all the help they received. “Because madness” is not a satisfactory answer.
All in all, I give House of Salt and Sorrows 3 stars out of 5. It’s an intriguing read and the atmosphere is really well done, I just feel like the story wasn’t all it could have been structurally. As this was a debut novel, I’m interested to see what the author comes out with next.