Genres: Horror, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Pansexual MC, nonbinary partner
PoV: First-person, present-tense
Published on: 2nd May 2023
From USA Today bestselling author Cassandra Khaw comes The Salt Grows Heavy, a razor-sharp and bewitching fairytale of discovering the darkness in the world, and the darkness within oneself.
You may think you know how the fairytale goes: a mermaid comes to shore and weds the prince. But what the fables forget is that mermaids have teeth. And now, her daughters have devoured the kingdom and burned it to ashes.
On the run, the mermaid is joined by a mysterious plague doctor with a darkness of their own. Deep in the eerie, snow-crusted forest, the pair stumble upon a village of ageless children who thirst for blood, and the three 'saints' who control them.
The mermaid and her doctor must embrace the cruellest parts of their true nature if they hope to survive.
I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
~the eyeballs of saints taste delicious
~be very suspicious of immortality
~do not fuck with mermaids
In 2021, I discovered Khaw via their novel The All-Consuming World – and fell head-over-heels in love with their incredibly decadent, luscious, shameless prose. I vowed then to read everything of theirs…even though they usually write hardcore horror, and as we know, I’m a horror wimp.
But with writing this beautiful, I am helpless to resist.
This is an odd little novella, which readers paying close attention will realise is set in the same world as Khaw’s short story These Deathless Bones – I can only hope this means Khaw plans to return to this world periodically, because I love it, but the Witch Bride does not herself appear in The Salt Grows Heavy, even though she’s refenced. (Alas. I suspect she’d have been an excellent ally to our main characters!) Regardless, in this book, a man-eating mermaid decides to wander the world for a time with a nonbinary plague doctor, whose admittedly mysterious origins still don’t come close to the darkly thrilling wonders of her own.
They encounter a cult whose practices the doctor does not approve of…and the two of them decide to intervene. For the doctor, it’s a Big Deal; for the mermaid, it’s a whim. Regardless, there are Consequences for everyone involved.
The stakes are life and death – and some kind of in-between immortality – but in this context those are still low stakes. The Salt Grows Heavy is not concerned with the fate of kingdoms; the story feels small – not petty or meaningless, but self-contained, isolated. Unlikely to affect anyone not present in its pages. I haven’t encountered books that feel like this very often, but it’s not unpleasant, just unfamiliar.
As for the story itself… A lot of it felt a little random, but I’m not sure if Things actually came out of nowhere, or if I just missed the set-up for them during one of those moments when I had to skim or skip ahead to avoid the worst of the body-horror elements. I had to do that quite a bit! Because as usual, Khaw holds nothing back in tenderly, lovingly describing the look of a person’s insides or the sensation (and taste) of an eyeball popping between one’s teeth.
I’LL PUT UP WITH A LOT FOR GORGEOUS PROSE, OKAY?
Names are like selkie-skins, often carelessly attended, left in view of those who would misuse them. Utilized correctly, though, they can kill a man, can turn a girl to a thing of teeth and dead eyes, an appetite to devour worlds; can make infernos of maidens, phoenixes of bones who have been asleep for so long they’ve forgotten the shape of rage.
Names have so much power.
And the prose is gorgeous – lush and rich and decadent, and wiser people than me should put together an essay on how much more viscerally horrifying horror becomes when it’s made beautiful; the dissonance of it, the way it seduces the reader, slyly transforming them from passive onlooker to almost-active participant. When you make horror beautiful, you make the reader want the horror – and that in itself is far more horrifying than anything that can happen on page. It moves the horror from the book into the reader. It turns the reader into a monster too, for the length of the story.
I am pretty sure Khaw knows this, and revels in it. They’re certainly a master at it!
Surprising no one, I’m sure, my favourite parts of The Salt Grow Heavy were the moments when we got mermaid lore. Khaw gives us just enough to establish how very un- and inhuman their mermaids are; enough to make me long for more. I would have been so happy to read the mermaid’s backstory; her life in the ocean, her leaving the water, burning down the kingdom that tried to cage her. We get very brief not-quite-flashbacks to her life with the king who made her tongueless, but the focus is very much post-fairytale, not the retelling that came before.
I allow myself, for the gash of a moment, to remember what I once possessed: the abyssal ocean the song in those depths like swimming down the black throat of a god; the searing colors moting my sisters’ coils, sapphire and quartz crushed into constellations, patterns prisms of incandescence spiraling through the dark, our tails in endless, restless motion; our mother’s eyes, colossal, phosphorescent; our father’s ribs, still studded with our egg sacs, his heartbeat in our veins. I’d been happy there. I could have been happy there forever.
In the Acknowledgements (in the arc, anyway – it’s perfectly possible they might change in the final copy) Khaw describes The Salt Grows Heavy as ‘about people who won’t give up on each other, who stay even when the world crumbles to ash, who hold on even when there’s nothing but hope.’ I admit, this puzzled me a little, because the love story that develops here seemed very sudden to me, not something that was central to the book.
But again, who knows what I missed all those times I flinched from the horror? And I’m not the best at understanding romance anyway.
In short…this is an odd little book. I think it’s one I need to reread, maybe several times, before I understand it fully – but it’s such a darkly beautiful read that I really don’t mind at all.
Take my thoughts with – ahem – a pinch of salt, since I fully acknowledge I probably missed things. But I did love this, and I’m glad I read it, and I’ll be happy to reread it. It’s definitely, easily my second-favourite book of Khaw’s (it’s going to be tough to beat All-Consuming World) and I strongly recommend it to anyone looking for a short but breathtaking read that might just tear your heart out of your chest.