House of Salt and Sorrows is a young adult fantasy novel which is essentially a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses but with a dark, in fact, a very dark twist. This one I came across purely by chance in a YouTube video by Hailey in Bookland and got a copy because it sounded so interesting.
In keeping with its dark done, the story opens with a funeral. Our heroine/narrator, Annaleigh Thaumas is one of twelve sisters, but sadly, only eight are left now. They lost their mother when the youngest was born, and since, four other sisters have died—of the plague, a drowning, and now Eulalie, of a plummeting fall—all tragic but seemingly accidental. But with Eulalie’s death, something changes. A young man, Edgar Morris who used to know her (in fact, claims that the two were in love) says he saw something strange on the night it happened. But only Annaleigh seems to believe him. Alongside, while Annaleigh’s family (at the instance of her stepmother Morella) makes a decision to leave aside mourning and attempt to return to normalcy after the tragedies that have plagued them all for far too long, more strange developments take place. Balls are thrown for the girls but the young men of society avoid dancing with the sisters for they are seen as cursed. Disappointed, the girls with their friend Fisher (the son of the housekeeper and their childhood pal) find a door to a magical world where they are invited to balls every night. Attendees are always masked, and wear beautiful gowns (as do our sisters–I thought these balls and the girls’ gorgeous gowns were beautifully described), there are refreshments galore but also something perhaps mysterious in them all—at least Annaleigh seems to get a sense of this. But her sisters are willing to continue to go, even when she stays behind. Their worn out shoes, as in the original story, are a puzzle to their father. In the ‘real’ world, things are not right either. Annaleigh is becoming increasingly suspicious about the circumstances surrounding Eulalie’s death. And one of her younger sisters, Verity not only sees some ghastly apparitions, but she has also been drawing them in her book—including scenes of her sisters’ deaths which she could not possibly have seen. But whenever Annaleigh tries to approach her father for help, either she is not listened to or it turns out that she was imagining it all. Was she? Does she manage to find out what is really going on and why her sisters died?
This story was meant to be a scary, dark read and it certainly was. From the tragedies that have struck and continue to strike the family to the ghastly apparitions that Verity ‘sees’ and draws in her book (to Annaleigh’s horror), to the nightmares Annaleigh has, everything keeps the mood and ‘feel’ very creepy indeed. The setting too, in a manor by the seaside, with cliffs for someone to plummet down from (as Eulalie did) was pretty perfect for the story. For me though, while these ghostly (and grisly) visions did add to the mood, what was truly unsettling were the moments when one couldn’t decide what was illusion and what was reality, and whether what we were taking to be the true version of events really was.
The world in which it is set is a fantasy one with magic yet without it, in that while our characters don’t have magical powers, theirs is a world which gods once frequented and can still influence, and there is some magic in operation like the door that the girls and Fisher find. For the rest, the place where they live in is an island city in which while people are ordinary and yet, the author creates an ideal world where customs are more egalitarian, and women get their due.
I really enjoyed the plot of the book, the author’s spin on the twelve dancing princesses story. The mystery element was one to which there were some hints, but at the same time, we do get thrown off track suspecting almost everyone, especially since after a point one really doesn’t know what is illusion and what isn’t. I thought the explanation incorporating another story of legend was quite interesting (nicely done) though some parts of it I though went may be a bit too over the top; I mean some of those details it could have done without.
This was a great read for the Halloween season, and one which I enjoyed very much. My rating—4.5 stars).
It wouldn’t do to end this review without a sentence on the actual book. I really liked the cover itself but more so the lovely endpapers in black and silver which incorporate motifs associated with the story—the family’s octopus crest, masks from the balls, and chandeliers among them—very lovely.
Have you read this one? How did you like it? Looking forward to you thoughts!