To quote “The Secret Garden”; “High on the hill sits a big, old house with something wrong inside it”.
Spoilers abound, you have been warned.
“House of Salt and Sorrows” is by far the best things I’ve read all year. The story follows Annaleigh who believes her family to be cursed from the day her mother died. Her sisters keep dying, often under mysterious circumstances that are so easily explained away by the town as the “curse” or the aftereffects of mourning.
Meanwhile, the Thaumas family is upsot by their step-mother’s sudden announcement of a pregnancy. She calls for an end to the constant mourning that has been in place since the death of Ortun Thaumas’ first wife. The remaining daughters plead with their father, and are granted the permission to keep on living, rather than keep themselves shrouded. This culminates in a coming out party for the triplets, who have recently turned sixteen. Lavish dancing shoes and dresses are ordered, the estate is thrown from its shroud into vivid color and decoration. The ball does not go as planned, however, as no suitors wish to touch the “cursed” girls. They are reasonably disappointed in this and wish they could escape the small island chain’s whispers and hopefully find love above this curse nonsense.
Throughout this time, the youngest and supposed source of the curse, Verity is subject to terrible visions of how her sisters perished, including those who passed before she was even born. She is haunted by the ghosts of these girls and draws her visions in disturbing clarity in a sketchbook, which she shows to Annaleigh. Shortly after being exposed to this Annaleigh begins seeing the ghosts too, as well as other terrifying apparitions.
Still longing to find love and leave the Estate, the sisters and their childhood friend Fisher hatch a plan to find a secret door within the shrine to Pontus, the island’s deity. Upon entering this door Fisher finds himself in a faraway land that he’d been thinking of as he stepped through. He comes back with invitations to a ball, an offer too bright for the girls to resist.
The girls begin using this door to transport themselves to faraway lands and spend the nights dancing at parties so decadent that they believe none could outshine the last. Each morning they awaken exhausted, believing that they’d danced the night away. Their shoes, a whimsical delicate leather slipper made for the coming out party begin to deteriorate. Undeterred by this, they begin to wear out any shoes they can get their feet into, including shoes belonging to their mother.
Annaleigh begins to feel uncomfortable with this evening practice, and begins abstaining from the dancing, leading to her being visited more than ever by the ghosts and other unpleasant visions. As the winter solstice and the Churning celebrations approach, only Camille, the oldest and heiress, continues attending.
The Churning dawns and brings with it a slew of men eager to take a blessing for a kind winter. Enter Cassius. Cassius is this tale’s tall, dark, and handsome Prince Charming. Having met Cassius earlier in the story, and encountered him a few times in the interim, Annaleigh is surprised to see him attending. They fall in love over the course of the story, despite her wondering if this mysterious, beautiful man is the source of their family’s grief.
During the Churning celebrations Cassius finds Annaleigh trapped in the solarium, chased there by her nightmares, and they vow to find out what’s haunting the family before any of the remaining sisters can be harmed. Annaleigh accompanies Camille to another ball, hoping to find the answers to the mystery there. Instead what she finds is that these glamorous parties and elaborate feasts are just farce. The glamor peels away as she stands there horrified, seeing a layered cake turn to a dead sea turtle, the punches turned to chum.
But when she awakens from this nightmare, a new one begins. There was no door in the shrine, there were no parties, just girls possessed and dancing in their rooms. The mystery unravels and Annaleigh is thrust into a race against time to keep the curse from spreading and taking every last one of the family. Tragedy strikes leaving only Annaleigh and the remaining five sisters to start their lives anew on the island.
All in all, this book was a fantastic read. Though it was a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”, it read like a marriage of the YA of old, like Meg Cabot’s “Mediator” series, with touches of the darkness found in Holly Black’s “Modern Faerie” Trilogy and staple tales like “The Secret Garden”.
The romance was believable and the love interest helped the protagonist towards her goal instead of impeding it, or stomping on her ideas in favor of his own. Despite his being a demigod, he is still limited in many ways by his mortality and I think it was done well up until the epilogue. But even then, while that is an element of YA fantasy that I am not fond of, others are. It was written for them, and I respect that.
Each character is lovingly written in a way that allows you to imagine them interacting with each other outside of the narrative just the same. The storylines between them unfold so naturally that you are often just as shocked by plot developments as the characters themselves. The icy cold feeling of betrayal as Annaleigh realizes that Morella was the source of their nightmare from the beginning is just so visceral. The strength and restraint Annaleigh shows in not granting Morella a swift death, it just makes me shake my fist and go YESSS!
The landscapes of this book are all so well thought out, again, you could paint a mental picture of them so clearly that you could taste the salt and feel the sand. It is truly a wonderful book. It well exceeded any of my expectations, and I look forward to reading this author’s future works.
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