The Salt Grows Heavy
by Cassandra Khaw
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Pub Date 02 May 2023 | Archive Date 31 May 2023
Tor Publishing Group, Tor Nightfire
From Cassandra Khaw, USA Today bestselling author of Nothing But Blackened Teeth, 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
“With this brilliantly constructed tale...Khaw cements their status as a must-read author.” —Library Journal, STARRED review
An Indie Next Pick! | An NPR Best Book of 2023!
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.
Also by Cassandra Khaw:
Nothing But Blackened Teeth
A Song for Quiet
Hammers on Bone
The Dead Take the A Train (co-written with Richard Kadrey)
“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
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 264 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.
Love this book. Beautiful and terrifying! Will definitely be having my library purchase this book.
Cassandra Khaw is one of the most skilled and exciting writers on the horror scene today. With past works, Khaw combines folklore with dense, poetic writing and dark folklore. With flawed and imperfect characters both undergoing and causing suffering, it feels like their previous works were simply practice for the masterpiece that is The Salt Grows Heavy.
Combining dark fantasy with the post-apocalyptic, the story is told from the point of view of one of folklore’s most ubiquitous creations: a mermaid. A being who acknowledges her myriad forms through different cultures, the mermaid has murdered her noble husband and burned his kingdom to ash. On the run, she is joined by a mysterious plague doctor with their own inner darkness. The two form a deep bond, discovering a village full of ageless, bloodthirsty children and those who control them.
The Salt Grows Heavy would collapse under the weight of the magnificent prose and beautiful language if not for Khaw's skill with the cast. Khaw provides a luxurious feast of character depth through the mermaid and the plague doctor. These are two people who need one another, but also two very dangerous and very disturbed individuals who will stop at nothing to survive. But they wish to survive together.
With little page time, Khaw constructs a compelling narrative out of well-trod fairytales and breaks them out to reveal the rot at the center. The carnage is vividly rendered, but never does Khaw forget this is a story of people. The mermaid and her plague doctor are dazzlingly, disturbingly human.
The Salt Grows Heavy is an enthralling book, a reminder that fairy tales still have teeth.
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The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw is possibly one of the prettiest but most gruesome books I've read. Khaw's writing is lyrical, verging on the purple side, but it works to enhance the horror of the scenes they paint. From opening the book by describing how a house looks like the empty bones of a body, to the dark and atmospheric painting of the world in which our characters are traveling. Khaw manages to show us both the horror and beauty of what's around.
The story itself is concise. A former queen, think a twisted Little Mermaid after she bore the Prince children and they turned out to be the horrors that she truly is, and a Plague Doctor are leaving the devastated realm her children destroyed and traveling to another. They find themselves in a village of children that is controlled and 'cared for' by a trio of Saints. We see the reflection of what violence and the search for immortality can do to a person and the victims it creates. Our mermaid is silenced, through violence perpetrated upon her by her husband, and over the course of the story she finds her voice again and becomes the master of her own story and heart.
As I stated the horror in this is intense, I wouldn't recommend this for the faint of heart. From a description to eating an eyeball to the sight of someone's insides leaking out their front, Khaw cuts no corners. My only complaint, in truth, has nothing to do with that. I almost never say this but the epilogue on this felt a bit too much, and unneeded. A tidy and sweet ending to a brutal and visceral story. Though I'm giving this one a high mark, I do wish that last little bit had been left to the reader to decide.
5 out of 5 Plague Masks
Holy hell I devoured this. I consumed every inch of this book and it left a hollow pit in my stomach longing for more.
I was skeptical prior to starting. I wasn’t a fan of Nothing But Blackened Teeth. But THIS!! This novella was divine.
The story follows a mermaid shortly after birthing two children and her journey with a plague doctor following escape from a vicious husband.
The depth to this story, I became so attached to the characters and their story, their development and their relationship. This is something I normally struggle with with novellas. Not this one. I loved every second of their story, and I crave more.
4.5 stars - rounded up to 5 stars
I adored this short book way more than I expected I would when I decided to start it. Cassandra Khaw was able to weave a dark and mesmerizing fairytale like the original Grimm Fairy Tales. While a lot of this story had gruesome imagery her writing style was beautiful and lyrical weaving a beautiful image of a mermaid and a plague doctor on a journey together.
This book touches on dark side of mermaids and shows this mermaid, now on the run, escaping from her royal partner. She is not able to speak when she first interacts with the plague doctor and eventually you find out aspects of both of their backgrounds. The trauma of their lives bringing them together as they approach a town of blood thirsty children and their “saints” that protects them.
If you like dark fairy tales full of gruesome imagery and a strange accompaniment, I recommend this for you. It is also short and sweet so it is a quick and easy read!
“It is always interesting to see how often women are described as ravenous when it is the men who, without exception, take without thought of compensation.”
A mermaid has just ravaged her husband’s kingdom, when she takes up with a local plague doctor. They happen upon a strange village filled with children and three surgeons that call themselves Saints. A childish game goes awry when the children start killing each other. The children reassure the mermaid and doctor that there’s no problem, the children have to die to be resurrected by the Saints.
Cassandra Khaw writes *very* interesting books. I had trouble reading The All-Consuming World, Nothing but Blackened Teeth was a solid four-star read, and I absolutely fell in love with The Salt Grows Heavy.
It’s no secret that not only do I love mermaid stories, I love revenge stories. Even better when they’re queer. Even better when they’re bloody. Khaw adds a little of each to this novella to create something truly outstanding. The language they use is often poetic and intense, which really sucked me into this story. As often with novellas, there can be a feeling the story is rushed or not flushed out enough, but that’s not a problem here. I think the story is appropriately paced with a satisfying ending.
If you are hesitant to read Khaw, please give The Salt Grows Heavy a chance. I am glad I still have a backlog of their work to read. I’d love to see how their writing has evolved over time.
Thank you to NetGalley and Tor Nightfire for the chance to read this advanced review copy.
CW for blood, body horror, violence, gore, death, fire, child death, grief, and animal death (minor)
A beautiful love story that is juxtaposed with a horrifying setting full of gore and cannibalism. This story was enthralling.
A very different outcome to the Little Mermaid tale. This mermaid lost everything when taken in by her prince. However, this story begins with her final acts of vengeance brought on by her bloodthirsty children as she leaves with her plague doctor.
They come across boys playing violently and follow them to a ramshackle town run by three saints. They have a very deceptive hold on these children, controlling them through fear and a god-like presence. The plague doctor and mermaid prepare to destroy these men before they can hurt more children.
This story is gross, and yet absolutely poignant and full of the most savory, lyrical writing, and more than anything, this story is full of a strong love and devotion between two people.
Definitely recommend this!
Out May 2, 2023!
I am a huge fan of "Nothing But Blackened Teeth" and this book will be taking a place right next to. It's dark and discomforting because it asks the readers to look at the dark parts of themselves. For that reason alone, I find great comfort in the story.
~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.
The Little Mermaid meets Frankenstein.
A story of love found, lost, and found again. A story of possession taken and given freely.
Dark and bloody and lovely.
The two main characters are so fascinating, both individually and in their dynamics. I would’ve followed them through any adventure. When they find some disturbing practices, they can’t help but explore this cult of sorts. Everything after that part rocks too. Just an all-round banger of a story. Took my favorite parts of fantasy, mixed them with body horror, and I couldn’t be happier with the result. Highly recommend. Quick read, too.
"There is nothing wrong with being a monster."
Their mouth bends. "You always know the right things to say."
Words of comfort, from one monster to another. This book was the love story that I didn't know I needed, the love story of a mermaid and a plague doctor, two monsters who try to defeat other monsters and their tribal cult of young children. There are two major elements that I appreciated in this book. The beautiful, poetic language, oftentimes with such rich and arcane language that I was glad to use the web search feature of my ebook. And the graphic depictions of body horror, as the carnivorous mermaid has an appetite for sundry body parts and the adversary monsters, a trio of self-proclaimed saviors, seek immortality through the surgical harvesting of children's body parts. The grisly scenes of chopping and snipping and slicing and chomping are made more . . . palatable by the lyrically dense language that Khaw employs. It also helps that the story is told from the perspective of the nameless mermaid, who is lovingly devoted to her plague doctor.
This book hit all the right spots for me, and I want to thank Netgalley and Tor for the opportunity.
With The Salt Grows Heavy, Cassandra Khaw has written a novella that feels like my worst nightmare. The story starts with the main character, the mermaid who has comes to the sea to marry a prince, sitting in the charred remains of a kingdom that she and her daughters have destroyed. A person dressed as a plague doctor accompanies her out of the desolation and into the world. Make no mistakes. This is not a fairytale even though the main character is a fairytale mermaid. This kingdom is razed. This land is dark. This is a scourge.
Cassandra Khaw writes deep and beautiful prose. There were times when I could feel everything that the characters felt. I could taste the things that they ate. The pain that they felt seeped from the page and into my own flesh. This denseness is off putting to some. Her sentences are sometimes complex and filled with tough phrasing and unknown words. The likelihood of any reader going through this novella and not having to look up a single word will be rare. However the concentration that the story demands, for us to delve into new language and writing, attaches us to the story, makes us dive deep into a world that is just as new and just as brutal to live through. This is purposeful. For a story that is only a little over 100 pages, this is not a casual read. The reader has to be completely engaged in the story from the very beginning. If we have to work to get into this story, through the writing, the more vivid and horrifying the world becomes. Admittedly, this will turn off quite a few readers, those who are looking for an easy book, but those who stick with The Salt Grows Heavy receive a story that displays great depths in agony and pain.
This is a very short book, and I love the story and the characters. The mermaid and the plague doctor are compelling and unforgettable. I feel this is a setup book, like The Salt Grows Heavy is just a chapter in their story. This could be the beginning of a series of novellas. If this is a standalone and we never hear from these two characters again, The Salt Grows Heavy is a big treasure in a small package. Even though it takes some effort, the reward is worth it. I hope that it is just the beginning.
I received this ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Inspired by the fairytale The Little Mermaid, this novella is about the enduring power of love in a macabre but beautiful setting. Forget everything you think you know about this story because it features a plague doctor, a cult, and bloodthirsty children. Cassandra Khaw's writing is masterful and every word has a purpose, making this a captivating read.
I LOVED everything about this book. The horror aspect, the relationship between the mermaid and the plague doctor, the writing. It was so good!
Just absolutely fucking nauseating and chilling - it's so good. The prose is the star of the show here, but that doesn't take away from how compelling the characters and plot are. I can't go into detail without giving anything away, but if you're interested in a single thing the blurb puts forward, please check this out.
I consider Cassandra Khaw to be the most intelligent horror writer working today. The way she crafts her stories with precision is a gift, and her latest work, The Salt Grows Heavy, is an absolute gem.
Our mermaid narrator, and her Plague Doctor companion encounter a strange village, where young people are butchered in the pursuit of eternal life. The tribe is manipulated by three “saints”, who resemble a barbaric Greek chorus. The Plague Doctor is strangely keen to free these young people, and their mermaid bride endeavors to assist. But this is a bleak fairytale, and escape never comes easily.
I have seen Khaw’s previous work dismissed as “purple prose”. But Khaw’s writing is never needlessly flamboyant. She challenges the reader by using heightened language to contribute to the sense of unease. By creating a world that is not entirely comfortable and familiar, Khaw firmly consumes the dedicated reader. Patience and repeated readings bring great rewards.
The Salt Grows Heavy is a perfect length to read in one sitting. I would recommend carving out time and focus to truly appreciate this novella. It is bleak, but beautiful.
What in the world did I just read? Surreal, disturbing, at times disgusting and very dark, this short novella is a mixture of science fiction and horror. It’s gory and unsettling and bizarre and… did I mention I loved it? It is really well written and atmospheric, and the world building is fantastic (even if no one would like to spend time there). The plot is simple, but addictive. The characters are absolutely unrelatable and yet, it’s impossible not to root for them. This is not Ariel frolicking under the sea, this mermaid has teeth. Her companion is a mysterious plague doctor and we don’t even know if it’s a man or a woman. The creatures they find along the way may not even be human. The story is full of bizarre imagery written in such beautiful, luscious prose that the contrast between the horrific events described with such lovely words, makes the whole tone discordant. I’m not sure if “enjoyable” is the right word for this read, but I liked it a lot.
I chose to read this book and all opinions in this review are my own and completely unbiased. Thank you, #NetGalley/# Tor Nightfire!
Cassandra Khaw! You genius! I made the mistake of picking this up during a 2am bathroom trip that turned into me making coffee because it's just THAT amazing. A beautiful love story, I can't wait to get a physical copy and tab this baby up!!! ❤️ 🖤
Beautifully dark fairytale with haunting prose.
Perfect for fans of T. Kingfisher or Catherynne M. Valente, this story will bite you and not let go until the end. Our main character is a mermaid-like creature more shark than siren. With her city being destroyed behind her, she walks into the woods along side a plague doctor. An easy friendship begins to form between them when they come upon a scene, where a group of boys are hunting another boy. From there the story squeezes the reader tight, not letting up the pace, while it explores the dark recesses of immortality, love and life.
Although this book is short, I read it so slowly, gnawing on the words and phrases. I highlighted and shared so many quotes with my bookish friends because I had to share the Cassandra Khaw's beautiful words with everyone. "There is a reason the hunt is central to so many narratives. For all that humanity professes to delighting in it's own sophistication, it longs for simplicity, for when the world can be deboned into binaries; darkness and light, death and life, hunter and hunted."
Thank you to NetGalley and Tor Publishing for this advanced reader copy.
This book is best read outside at night, by a warm fire with good company (keep a knife close at hand).
Cassandra Khaw is so tremendously skilled. She weaves sentences and worlds with such creative spin and depth. Salt Grows Heavy is one of her more rich and deliciously gruesome works yet. What's amazing is the same mind who created the Japanese Folklore in Blackened Teeth has created this folklore of the sea.
This was a short, yet dazzling read. The writing style reminded me of Catherynne Valente's. I want more of this world, desperately.
I went in blind and suggest other readers do too! I loved this haunting, gruesome and strange little fairytale.
Thank you to Tor Nightfire and NetGalley for the digital ARC!
(i have received this e-ARC from netgalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
wow. cassandra khaw has done it again: making me feel the entire spectrum of human emotion in this gutsy and unflinching tale inspired by folklore. each page (and each paragraph and each sentence) is filled with a kind of magic that ensnares the reader in an inescapable web. the characters have burrowed their way into my heart, and even after the end, their claws will remain a permanent memory on my mind.
Astounded. My introduction to C. Khaw, was bombastic and I am absolutely flabbergasted. Cunning, grotesquely graphic, my senses were heightened throughout the whole read. With each virtual finger flip of a page I tasted metal in my mouth and sharp prodding down to my bone. As the story continued, the detail entranced me, leaving me sitting, crookedly in my spot, only getting up to stretch, listening to my bones snap between my breath, I just wanted more.
The world is a visceral place. We are animals. Sometimes, rather than just being instinctual, we let it live on pages.
As this story unfurled, it did not go the way I expected. The ending, Wow. Am I going to look into everything C. Khaw has published, absolutely, yes. Do I want all the copies and all the signing invites, dead yes. I just want more.
Though March, one of the best books I've read all year (this is my 21st).
Thank you Netgalley & C. Khaw for this ARC.
This book was provided to Me by NetGalley and torNightFire for free in advance of publication for me to provide an honest review. Thank you Net Galley and tor!
This is a travelogue following not your Disney princess mermaid who has a taste for human flesh and a plague doctor who is non-binary. During their journey of a cross a kid being hunted by a group of other kids, the surviving kids take them to a village to meet the three adults that the kids called the saints. The saints harvest the organs from the victim and use it to extend their lives. The victim is then resuscitated. The plague doctor does not want this to continue and wants to expose the saints for what they are: monstrous humans.
This book examines what it means to be monstrous. At its heart, it's also a love story. I enjoyed this book. I enjoyed the taiga setting. Cassandra Khaw's writing is so brutal and gory and honest I could read it all the time.
It feels wrong to review this novella in plain writing, as it’s written in such elegant, otherworldly prose, but I will try. Honestly the most impressive thing about Khaw’s writing is the flowing, delicate, ease with which they use words I must look up on nearly every page (and I promise I did well on the SAT). Their writing is really worth reading even if sometimes it feels way more flowery than active. The characters in The Salt Grows Heavy, a plague doctor and vicious mermaid, both stranded in a ruined landscape, are so likable despite being almost inherently unlovable. I really loved the motifs and questions about human nature that Khaw presents, about immortality, sacrifice, and worship, without spoiling too much here. The horror of this story is in carefully crafted scenes of anatomical gore (stomach-turning, but tasteful and not excessive) and terrifying crises of ethics and humanity. I will definitely read this again after looking more into the mythology of mermaids and adjacent creatures. This definitely strikes me as a work worth rereading to catch more meaning and detail. I recommend this to really anyone with an interest in fairy tales, mythology, or horror.
"The Salt Grows Heavy" by Cassandra Khaw is a strange book. In a pastiche of "Frankenstein" and "The Little Mermaid" and "Lord of the Flies," we are given an odd, often gruesome travelogue that ends sooner than expected.
After fleeing a plague—in fact, the mermaid’s children eating everyone in the kingdom—the silent mermaid and a cobbled-together plague doctor find themselves in a frozen village filled with children who regularly kill each other, only to be resurrected by a trio of masked doctors called the saints. These doctors are, in fact, the ones responsible for creating the plague doctor, and this gives our characters mixed feelings. When more information is revealed, and the purpose of the children uncovered, the mermaid must decide whether to flee or remain beside her loyal doctor as they do what they think is right.
The set-up of this story had me thinking we’d be following these two characters for a while, but their travels come to an abrupt stop in the snowy woods when they witness the brutal murder of a child by a group of other children. And it all unravels from there. The turns of events are unexpected all the way through, and the reader cannot guess what is going to happen next. Truly, when the blurb or I compare this to other stories, that’s really not going to set the reader up to understand what’s happening.
"The Salt Grows Heavy" has to be read to be understood. And then you’re going to have to sit with it for a couple of days after. I received the ARC from NetGalley.
Thank you to NetGalley for the review copy!
A truly lyrical read that has some of the most lush and evocative writing that I have ever had the pleasure to read. Khaw does an amazing job at creating a beautiful story that lingers in the mind for days afterwards. The romance, the gore, the scenery.... everything just comes alive (though some of the gore descriptions did turn my stomach)! I couldn't get enough of the fairy tale aspects of the story or the way that stories shape both the narrative and the world of this novella. I also am in awe at the romance that appears in this story. While not a main focus, it hit all the right spots and just set my brain on fire with how pitch perfect it was. How can you not when you have lines like:
"Bury me, my love, and take a lock of my hair with you. Carry me through the centuries. I think I'd like to share, just a little, in what immortality is like."
"Whatever they want, I will place it at their feet. Even their death."
On the craft side, I often find that novellas suffer from having too little or too much plot as the shortness of the format often is difficult for authors to pull off. However, Khaw does an amazing job with providing just enough detail that I never felt lost or confused but also didn't bloat the story with extraneous information or leave me with so few details I couldn't understand what was happening. It truly was such a tightly written and evocative piece that I know I will buy in paperback as soon as it comes out.
Recommended for all those who want to read an evocative short read, have watched too many Aemond or Daemon Targaryen edits on TikTok, or wants to read a really interesting fairy tale adjacent story.
I think another reviewer described this reading experience best: I feel like I am experiencing a reader's higher.
Khaw somehow mixed the dark and grotesque with a enchanting and lyrical prose; it was beautiful and perfect and holy hell how did she do it!? Like, how can a story filled with gore, shiny, grey intestines, and putrid odors be so excellently placed with a love story so enduring and poetic?
This is a novella I could read again and again, left in awe every time ❤
Okay, how about this: a killer mermaid and a plague doctor walk into a bar*.
Wait no, how about this:
- Knock knock.
- Who’s there?
- A killer mermaid and a plague doctor.
- A killer mermaid and a plague doctor who?
- A killer mermaid and a plague doctor who fall in love.
Wait no, how about this:
- Why did the killer mermaid and the plague doctor cross the road*?
- To murder some gods.
*still a post-apocalyptic forest.
Anyway I loved this book!!! The end lol.
This was a fantastic dark story with a pairing I didn't know I needed; a mermaid and a plague doctor?!! Honestly, need I say more?!
This was a gory love story that I didn't know I needed. Cassandra Khaw is a master of prose and storytelling.
'The Salt Grows Heavy' is incredibly strange, which I mean in an absolutely glowing way. It's raw and grisly and gross and visceral, but in a world where so much fantasy has been marred by self-aware quips, it's wonderful to read something so genuine. There's no detailed explanation for how the magic works here, but it's gruesome when it happens, which sells the point that this novella is a fairy tale rather than a fantasy epic.
It's hard to go into much detail about 'The Salt Grows Heavy' without spoiling it--the novella is relatively short, and I'd recommend finishing it in a day. The prose does get a little purple and I had to re-read some paragraphs to understand what happened, but ultimately I enjoyed my time with the mermaid and her plague doctor, and the epilogue was awfully sweet.
“The Salt Grows Heavy” was a fast-paced story of holding onto humanity and the lengths we'll go to do so. It’s gory, brutal, but so lovely in the end.
Honestly I’m completely surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. Here me out. I didn’t like Nothing But Blackened Teeth AT ALL! The writing was too flowery and heavy with purple prose. The characters were flat and nothing really happened, especially nothing horror related.
But The Salt Grows Heavy is nothing like Nothing but Blackened Teeth. The plot is unique. It screams gothic horror. I absolutely adored the theme of “the Hunt” incorporating characters like a Plague Doctor and a mermaid who eats humans. Characters were interesting and different.
She absolutely crushed it with the body horror. All I can say without spoilers is if you have a weak stomach, good luck.
Khaw’s writing is beautiful in this novellas. It was way less “purple” and it showcases how strong of a writer she really is. I’m happy I took another chance on her writing.
Khaw spun a love story amongst all the gore and body horror that really brought the story together showing that true love really can withstand anything.
I loved this book, the story, the cover, everything about it. It really leans into a sinister fairytale, almost, turning a mermaid story upside down. I will constantly recommend this story to everyone.
As strange and mythic as this was, as much as I didn't really understand what was going on, I feel I can't give it anything less than 5 stars. The writing is pure poetry. Khaw has such a unique way with words, it's breathtaking. The feeling of never giving up for the person you love, always finding your way back to them, was very lovely and done in such an interesting way. It was pure magic reading this fairy tale. It felt like a dream, like I was floating along and just along for the ride, but I loved every second of it.
I suppose my only complaint is the almost excessive use of "big words". I had to look up lots of the words, and it almost felt pretentious. But at the same time I think it also adds to the ethereal, otherworldliness of the tale. All in all it was a remarkable dream to experience.
Oh what an horrifying little adventure this was. This story follows our main character mermaid and her seemingly faithful companion the plague doctor as they discover a terrifying village. A terrifying village whose leaders are not at all what they seem.
This is such a fast paced and creepy adventure. It took me a minute to realize that we don't really need to know all of the world because Khaw does such a great job framing the story. I loved getting to experience this story and I think it is quite honestly my favorite Khaw story to date! Check it out!!
This was EXACTLY what I was looking for in a novella. And to top it all off, I guess I'm now a fan of horror romance and Cassandra Khaw.
This is a must-read for any horror fan. I'm not really a gore fan, but I'll make an exception for this because it was well-written. The pacing was also well done that even with lulls in the prose, I was still hooked on the story enough to keep reading in (almost) one sitting.
The mermaid and the plague doctor were written in a way that made you really want to root for them, even though one is a monster that loves to eat human body parts. Usually, my issue with novellas is that either characterization or worldbuilding are sacrificed for the plot or action. But not so with The Salt Grows Heavy. Everything is evenly balanced so that you understand the immediate setting (with some of the world at large), the main characters and their quirks and ambitions, and the supporting characters and the roles they play regarding the story and their relationships with the MCs and with each other.
The writing is beautiful and I couldn't help but to highlight some passages in my e-arc copy. And I'm someone who hasn't annotated anything since undergrad. It's that good.
Although some of the words used are... excessive? to the point where reading this novella might not be accessible if you have trouble reading in English. The author uses some really obscure words that I had to keep looking up in my Kindle's built-in dictionary. And since I was using it in airplane mode, half the definitions weren't included in the standard dictionary. Honestly, this is my only issue with the novella.
Thank you to Tor Publishing Group and NetGalley for this arc.
This is a dark twisted fairytale featuring a mermaid and a plague doctor. But it's so beautiful and well written that the horrors (when they happen) are striking and chilling.
As you're reading, the tight poetic prose lures you into this tale and into the world of these characters. The author knows how to jar the reader at unexpected times, barely with warning, and that's a very good thing.
While the narrative lulls you in its arms, the horrific events that happen reminds you that this is a horror story and the acts committed by certain characters are a stark contrast to the beautiful world the author creates.
This makes it an exceptionally compelling page turner. Despite the bloodshed, this book is about trust in another person (or even creature) and what the sacrifice might be for that trust.
It's a gorgeous, moving, and bloody novella and I highly recommend it.