When I finished this book, I put it down and thought ‘well, that was pretty good.’ It wasn’t until I started making notes for this review that I realised exactly how good. Honestly, I can’t think of much wrong with it at all.
The Witch of Salt & Storm is about a sixteen-year-old girl, Avery Roe, who lives on a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean. For centuries, the women of the Roe family have been the island’s witches, making charms to keep sailors safe at sea. In the mid-1800s, when the whaling industry was slowly declining, they rely on these charms for their livelihood.
Avery is set to become the next witch. All she has to do is return to her grandmother’s cottage and begin her training. When she has a dream which foretells her own murder, Avery’s need to become the witch increases as it is the only way she believes she can save herself. But her mother has her under a spell, which she must first break free from.
When Tane, a mysterious, tattooed whale harpooner arrives on the island seeking his own dreams, he makes a deal with Avery. It appears they must help each other before they can help themselves. But they’re running out of time, and fate is not patient.
What follows is a remarkable, gritty, and unsettled story. Whilst marketed as YA, I hesitate to call it that. This book is very adult in its attitudes, and definitely not for the feint hearted (what with all the murder, graphic descriptions of killing whales, and the heart-wrenching stories of the Roe women which I will not divulge because spoilers!)
It doesn’t take a lot to work out that Avery and Tane fall in love. In the world of YA novels, brooding heroine + mysterious new boy in town = romance. But Kulper handles this very well. Their relationship feels very natural. No cheesy, unrealistic accidental meetings, will they/won’t they, or angst-filled pages devoted to whining about each other. It’s like the story knows there’s a romance coming and just gets on with it, and so do the characters. They spend a lot of time together before it happens, too, so there’s no insta-love, either. Hooray! Also, the romance does not distract from the plot. Avery’s impending doom and her struggle to become the witch remain in the forefront of the story, which is refreshing.
Avery herself is an excellent main protagonist. Kulper has not gone out of her way to make her unique, so she feels tangible and realistic. She’s by no means dull – it’s just that some authors try so hard to remove their characters from stereotypes (especially in YA) that they end up being ridiculous and you can’t take them seriously. Avery has flaws, the main ones being stubbornness and a temper, but she’s also practical, tough, and willing to meet her fate in spite of fear and do what needs to be done.
As the word ‘witch’ in the title suggests, this book also contains some magic. It’s powerful, and deeply ingrained into the world of the story. However, what I liked most about the magic aspect was not the magic itself but instead the islanders’ reactions to it. They all need the witch for something or other — to protect sailors, to control the weather, for lovers to stay faithful when away at sea, etc. They are mostly kind and respectful to Avery and her grandmother, leading Avery to believe that they care for them. But, as is the way with witches throughout history, as soon as things go wrong, people turn their backs. They need someone to blame, and the witch is it. It doesn’t matter who the current witch is or whether she is at fault, because she is the only ambassador for magic and therefore the only one that can be punished. This makes the novel feel more historical than fantastical, as it reflects past (and in some places still present) attitudes to witches in real life. People would use their services, but betray them to save themselves if the time came.
Everything in The Witch of Salt & Storm holds together nicely. The story is plausible, the characters are engaging and the plot is intense. It has a satisfactory ending, and is very easy to read writing-style wise. If witches or history are your thing then you don’t want to miss this! Overall, it’s a tidy, enjoyable story that will keep you wondering right up until the last page. As this is Kulper’s debut novel, I’m excited to see what’s she’ll produce in the future!
You can find out more about Kendall Kulper and The Witch of Salt & Storm on her website.
Has anyone else read this? What did you make of it? In general, what do you think of books which blend fantasy with history?
Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is Senior Editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Currently she is studying for a masters degree in Ethnology & Folklore at the University of Aberdeen. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.