The Salt Grows Heavy
by Cassandra Khaw
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Pub Date 02 May 2023 | Archive Date 16 May 2023
Tor Publishing Group, Tor Nightfire
From USA Today bestselling author Cassandra Khaw comes The Salt Grows Heavy, a razor-sharp and bewitching fairy tale of discovering the darkness in the world, and the darkness within oneself.
“This brilliant novella is not to be missed.” —Publishers Weekly, STARRED review
You may think you know how the fairy tale 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 cruelest parts of their true nature if they hope to survive.
“A feverishly gory, grotesquely beautiful and baroque fairy-tale-meets-love-sonnet. Cassandra Khaw’s imagination is limitless.” —Paul Tremblay, author of The Cabin at the End of the World and A Head Full of Ghosts
“Cassandra Khaw’s writing is never more lyrical than when they’re describing the knife in your heart. The bones of a fairy tale sunk deep in a charnel house of descriptive prose, an elegant confection with a blood-soaked core. I devoured it in one sitting.” —T. Kingfisher, multi-award winning author of What Moves the Dead and Nettle & Bone
“Cassandra Khaw’s steely prose is matched only by the inventiveness of their imagination. The Salt Grows Heavy demonstrates their continuing mastery of the novella form with a story Angela Carter would be jealous to have written. Here, as in all Khaw’s work, the strange and familiar coil around one another, each opening into another aspect of the other.” —John Langan, author of Corpsemouth and Other Autobiographies
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Average rating from 94 members
This book was as vicious as teeth and as rich as heart's blood. It's hard to call it gory, because it doesn't portray flesh and blood and bone in anyway that is truly recognizable as human, though it's close enough to be unsettling. The prose only added to the atmosphere of otherworldly-ness, lyrical and severe all at once. This novella was paradoxically both difficult to continue and absolutely riveting. I simply could not look away. I loved reading this, though I'm not sure I can qualify the experience as enjoyable. Khaw packs a beautifully succinct punch with this one, but check the content warnings.
4.5 rounded up.
A haunting, gorgeously gory novella, and a great way to start out the new year. While at times the plot and characters feel more like a vehicle for the prose than features of the story, I couldn't help but sink into the writing style and the world, which invokes the darkest sides of fairy tales and folklore. In particular, every description of the unnamed mermaid's abyssal home had me enraptured.
The budding relationship and connection between the two monsters was oddly endearing; the softness of their affection for one another helped take the edge off the darkness of the rest of the content, creating a fine balance that made this a very enjoyable read. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for the author's future works.
I always enjoy a good mermaid story and this was what I was looking for. I've been a fan of Cassandra Khaw for a long time and this was another wonderfully done read. Cassandra Khaw has a great writing style and it works in the mermaid story. It was a great scifi/fantasy element and I enjoyed every part of the story. I look forward to more from Ms. Khaw.
“I will keep those words in mind for when and if I meet a god.” The sound of my plague doctor’s voice is poison. They crouch before the surgeon, head cocked, the drape of their robes like a framework of wings. “Let me know if you meet one. I’d love to see if my manners might please them.”
I have been eagerly awaiting this book since I first heard about it, so thank you so much to Tor Nightfire for sending me this! I enjoy Cassandra's prose so much; it is unapologetic and demanding, and it asks the reader to make an effort to navigate the story.
There is very little handholding, you are dropped into the middle of the story without much explanation, and you move headlong into this relationship between a mermaid (for lack of a better word) and a mysterious plague doctor. They travel to a creepy village and things ramp up from there. I don't want to give anything away, as I found this novella very rewarding and wouldn't want to spoil the experience for anyone.
A caveat: If gore is not your thing, you may want to avoid this one. The descriptions of violence are long and detailed, so bear that in mind. But I found the story and the characters fascinating and there are some heartbreakingly beautiful phrases in here. Thoroughly enjoyed this.
This is such a weird, gory little thing. I don't know that it does the critical work she wants and the language is a bit much at times, but the images are so killer and as a fairy tale retelling it's fabulous.
WOW. I am completely blown away by this little novel.
There's not much more I can say about the plot that wouldn't risk spoiling, but the overall premise is that a mermaid and a plague doctor are travelling and come across a very strange village in the woods.
I read Khaw's Nothing Like Blackened Teeth and it was unfortunately not for me. I'm so glad that I gave her another shot, because I loved every page of this book. It's not often that I don't want a book to end, even when I love it, but I wanted to keep reading about our two main characters!! I couldn't get enough of them.
After murdering her husband and burning his kingdom to the ground, a mermaid adventures with a plague doctor into the sinister woods... to face off against men who believe themselves saints, children who kill each other and come back alive, and sinister blood sports. Will they be able to survive what awaits them? This was a bloody good time, it was absolutely fantastic. I ate this up. It was gory, beautiful, haunting, and romantic all the while being part gothic fairytale. A mermaid who has been trapped finally frees herself, she consumes human flesh that helps regenerate her wounds. After all the abuse of her husband she is finally free and goes journeying with the plague doctor she’s known. They make an unlikely pair. Together they find themselves facing off against a sinister village with surgeons who torture and kill all in the name of being gods. This was absolutely the perfect read that makes me want to know more about these characters, like I would absolutely love more books featuring their story, their past and what the future holds for them.
*Thanks Netgalley and Tor Publishing Group, Tor Nightfire for sending me an arc in exchange for an honest review*
A hungry mermaid and a plague doctor traveling through the dangerous wilderness.
A trio of horrifying saints.
Another shivery novella to unsettle and delight.
Every once in a while, you come across a book that leaves you lost in thought even days later. The Salt Grows Heavy is a one-of-a-kind adventure that is both beautifully poetic in its writing, but also horrifying in its imagery. I was instantly pulled into the very essence of this story. While it is a short story it definitely left a lasting impression on me. I found the characters to actually be enduring in their own ways. I thought that the bond between the two MC was actually quite lovely and was moved at the level of loyalty that the Mermaid had for the Plague Doctor was touching.
THE SALT GROWS HEAVY by Cassandra Khaw (Nothing But Sharpened Teeth)
Release Date: May 2023
General Genre: Adult Horror, Dark Fantasy
Subgenre/Themes: Body Horror, Immortality cult, creepy isolated village, plague doctors, mermaids
Writing Style: Fast pace, intricately detailed, luscious prose
What You Need to Know: A vengeful mermaid and a plague doctor journey together through unknown territory. They stumble upon some children playing a murderous game and follow them back to an isolated, eerie village with "ageless" children who worship a trio of sinister surgeons.
My Reading Experience: I am thoroughly flabbergasted. I finished this book with my jaw dropped open and a full-on reader's high. There is so much I love about this story, I honestly don't know what to say or where to start. I suppose I can appeal to readers who have enjoyed the cartoon, "Over the Garden Wall". This has that same "stumbled into a creepy village where the townsfolk are up to something" vibe while still being whimsical/playful but in a dark, creepy way. I hope that makes sense! It will be to the right people.
However, this doesn't stop at "eerie & creepy", it transitions quite earnestly into savagery and horror. This is not your garden variety "beautiful mermaid falls in love with a handsome prince" although there is love and the mermaid is beautiful if you're a horror freak like me and you are drawn to mythological creatures stereotypes obliterated in favor of a more realistic, terrifying version but there is not a "handsome prince". The mermaid is in love with a plague doctor with a sweet disposition, a quiet demeanor, and an androgynous sex appeal.
These two encounter a terrifying scene, some children hunting another child for sport. Eventually, they find themselves in a village filled with odd children and uncover a secret cult led by a trio of evil surgeons. The plague doctor's identity is revealed and the mermaid's inhuman qualities come to light.
Cassandra Khaw has a seductive, skillful way around descriptive words that make her characters pop right off the page. I was immediately absorbed into Khaw's setting and bewitched by the luscious, elegant prose. I enjoyed the feeling of being lured into a fairy tale knowing that Khaw is a horror writer and anticipating something sinister. It delivers so deliciously.
Final Recommendation: I love this book so much. It's only February with a whole year of horror books ahead of us but don't worry, I won't let anyone forget this one.
Comps: Over the Garden Wall, Grimm's Fairy Tales... I've never read anything like this!
Sometimes you pick up a book and it feels like the author wrote it just for you. That's what this book feels like to me. It's the perfect blend of horror and folklore, a story of a mermaid (if you want to call her that) that is properly strange and unknown and terrifying. All told in the most lyrical of prose. I fucking LOVED it.
What a strange, disgusting, absolutely spell-binding book. At once like curling up and reading a favorite fairy tale (the old ones, where it all goes wrong before it goes right) and digging around through grave dust. Hope in its strangest, darkest form. Incredible!
If you are looking for a dark, prose-forward, and violent fairy-tale, look no further than The Salt Grows Heavy.
We've all heard the classic story before: A mermaid gives up her voice to be with the human man she loves. But this story is much darker than the Disney movie you might be thinking about. This mermaid loses her voice when the humans cut her tongue out from her body. When she and her human lover have daughters, these daughters aren't messing around. They kill all of the humans, and our mermaid protagonist is now on the run. She meets up with an androgynous plague doctor with a dark past, and they travel together until they reach a small village where the children play murderous games, and the government is controlled by three prophet-surgeons. The Mermaid and Plague Doctor have one primary goal: survive.
There are so many wonderful elements to this novella that I don't even know where to begin.
Khaw's prose is beautiful and transportive. Their prose is evocative of the old fairy tale style, but with an elevated and modern twist. Khaw took the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and more and somehow further twisted their narratives into the gothic and horrifying. It is obvious that Khaw carefully selected each and every word to achieve just the right connotation; just the right emotional response; just the right poetic beat. I found myself often needing to go back and re-read passages because I was so swept up in Khaw's words that I wasn't actually following the story. (I was also glad that I read this book on a Kindle because there were a lot of words that I had to look up in the dictionary!)
Take just the opening passages of the book. I read those first few pages at least three times as I was swept away by Khaw's lyrical description of the Mermaid's daughters murdering their father while their house burned down. It even took me a moment to realize that that was happening because the prose was so poetic, so metaphorical.
Khaw populates her world with mysterious characters that come to (eerie and sinister) life. Both the Mermaid the Plague Doctor are well-drawn and complex characters. The Mermaid is our POV character throughout the novella, and so we see the world through her lens. She is a character who thought she found love and happiness, but was quickly escorted into a terrible situation that only got worse. As readers, it is easy to empathize with her plight, and we cheer her on through her trials and triumphs. However, to me, and maybe it was because they weren't the POV character, the more interesting of our two main characters was the Plague Doctor. Khaw slowly peels away their mask (both literally and figuratively) as we get to know their dark past and foreboding future. The Plague Doctor brings a jovial sadness to the novella that felt so very real and so very human.
This novella is not for the easily grossed out or faint of heart. Khaw never goes too far, and the horror elements never feel exploitative, but their descriptions of the dark, bloody, and gross things that the Mermaid and Plague Doctor encounter and experience made my skin tingle. I am one of those people who gets a small pain in my knee if someone is talking about how they hurt their knee, and so I was experiencing these little sensations from the images that Khaw conjured up in this little novella. The book isn't scary, but it is dread-inducing as Khaw takes us through this mysteriously horrifying village located within this greater horrifying world.
Through all of the body horror, the sinister surgeons, and the violent villagers, this is a story of love between two broken people crossing a shattered landscape together. Despite its short length, the relationship between the Mermaid and the Plague Doctor grows organically. It's not a fantasy-romance by any means, but it two people finding each both despite and because of the macabre.
I always feel that my role as a reviewer is to help set reader expectations for the books that I review. So, I will say this - if you are primarily a plot reader than this book may not be for you. Readers who do not care about the actual prose or writing of the book (or who value other elements of fiction writing more) may find this novella over-written (some may even call the prose purple) and bloated in its writing. While the Khaw definitely revels in some of the horror elements, particularly in the latter half of the novella, much of the novella is also slow and contemplative. If you aren't swept up in Khaw's world and writing in the first few pages, then nothing the novella does later really changes that.
For me, the entire thing really worked and I enjoyed spending an evening in Khaw's messed up world. This was my first book by Cassandra Khaw, and I will now make sure to go seek out more.
Concluding Thoughts: This novella won't be for everyone as The Salt Grows Heavy is unlike anything I've ever read. It is a gorgeously grotesque fairy-tale lead by two memorable characters finding love in a disturbing world. Readers who love lyrical prose, body horror, and very slanted fairy tale retellings should definitely check this one out.
This was so beautifully cyclical and mesmerizing. I couldn’t put it down and highlighted nearly have the book. Cassandra Khaw always gifts us a body’s weight worth of gorgeous quotes.
Okay, for one, I'm so thankful to Cassandra Khaw and Tor NightFire for sending me an Advanced Reader Copy of this gorgeously jaw-dropping horror novella before it's set to publish on May 2, 2023.
Second, I was lucky enough to participate in a buddy read of sorts (even though I suck at those) with the always lovely @Readergirlie. A book this short is quickly sufficient to binge in an hour or two.
The Salt Grows Heavy is a horror novella that tells the tale of an unlikely pair: A ravenous mermaid and a plague doctor. The two travel across the land, seeking vengeance for an undisclosed reason, feasting on the bodies and souls of the unfortunate passerby of the moment. When the duo comes across an odd campsite that tasks their children with hunting each other for sport and resurrection purposes, the plague doctor decides to use his gift for good and save as many poor children as possible.
This fortress includes the task force of several zombie-like surgeons who maim and torture their patients, stitching together various demises and body parts, all to defeat mortality. Backed by the murderous rage of the land-bound mermaid and the plague doctor's unresolved trauma and healing abilities, they combine their forces with standing up against these cult-like practices, and in turn, we see a love story like no other.
I really enjoyed this. The length is good for this book. It's a very good, gory novella that definitely doesn't shy away from the traditional fairy tales and mythology surrounding mermaids and other creatures. The mermaid and the plague doctor are an unlikely duo; however, I am here for it. My jaw dropped several times. Like horror novellas? You should read this.
This was a romance I didn’t know I needed. The I enjoyed this haunting, grotesque novella so much! It was wild and horrific and THE PLAGUE DOCTOR was so lovely. I loved the vicious and creepy tone and the lore. It was wonderfully disgusting with gore. It was as if neverland and the lost boys met Frankenstein in a gory nightmare as our main character and her companion couldn’t escape it.
I teared up at the end, with all the trauma and eviscerated bodies and souls, the love and romance WAS SO TENDER.
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