I’m not sure why I picked up The Witch of Salt and Storm. It has a beautiful cover, sure; it sported some darn fine writing in its opening pages, of course. It had an interesting premise, set in a time period and backdrop which interests me.
But, despite all that, it was a book about grand passion. And we all know how I normally feel about books like that.
Clearly, I saw something different in this book, something different enough to make me intrigued enough to buy it. I’m still not sure what this indefinable ‘something’ is: the voice, maybe. Whatever it was, I’m hugely glad I took the chance on it.
This book moved me deeply. It made me think about the nature of sacrifice, what the word ‘love’ even means, and how many different aspects there are to this seemingly simple state of being. It made me think about motherhood, and how it feels to be a mother, to be a daughter, to feel hemmed in by the protective instincts which seek to keep you safe in a troubled world, and how frustrating it is when what you want (or think you want, which amounts to much the same thing) seems not to tally with what your circumstances dictate that you will have. It’s a complex and satisfying book, for all its romantic aspects, and I don’t mind telling you at the outset that it’s one I really enjoyed.
The book is narrated by Avery Roe, who is the granddaughter of the current witch of Prince Island. The island has always had a witch, and she is always a Roe; one cannot exist without the other. The islanders need the witch to keep the weather fair, to keep their boats safe, and to keep their men returning home, hale and hearty, after every whaling season. The witch needs the island to live, for the Roe witch can never set foot off Prince Island. The mantle of the Roe witch passes from mother to daughter roughly every forty years or so, but at the outset of the book we learn that Avery’s mother, who should have taken over as the witch several years before, has – for reasons which seem inexplicable to Avery – turned her back on her calling, and is living with her husband and his children in the town of New Bishop, a major whaling port. What’s worse is she has forced Avery to come and live with her. This meant tearing her away from her grandmother and the life she knew and loved for her first twelve years, as – for reasons which don’t become clear until the dramatic, painful dénouement – Avery has lived with her grandmother since birth, and loves her dearly. As the story opens Avery is sixteen, and has been desperately trying to find her way back to her grandmother for the past four years, without success. The distance between the two is a mere few miles, but Avery’s mother has placed her under such a strong curse that she can barely think about making a move towards her grandmother’s house before something disastrous happens to block her way. No matter what she tries, Avery is left stuck, frustrated and angry, in New Bishop. She ‘tells dreams’ as a way to keep in touch with her magic (each Roe witch has a particular gift; Avery’s is foretelling the future through dreams), and then one night Avery has a dream of her own.
A dream in which she is a whale, pierced through by the harpoons of many hunters, left to die in the ocean.
She wakes, terrified, knowing that the dream portends her own murder. But she knows this means something worse: if she is going to die by violence, she will never make it back to her grandmother’s house, and she will never take over from her.
For you cannot kill the Roe witch.
Avery’s determination to go back to her grandmother and become the witch begins to dominate her life, but no matter what she tries, her mother’s magic is stronger than hers. Hemmed in at every turn, she is stuck, emotionally and physically. The relationship between Avery and her mother is amazingly well drawn; I at once found myself identifying totally with Avery, dying to be free, and with her mother, who would rather die than have her come to harm. But Avery knows time is running out, and her death is imminent, and she is desperate to find a way back to her grandmother, so when the tattooed boy from the South Pacific, Tane, comes to New Bishop with his strange, new magic, she takes a chance.
Despite her grandmother’s oft-repeated warning never to trust strange magic, Avery reaches a bargain with the strange boy. In exchange for telling his dreams, which Tane hopes will help uncover the identities of the people who murdered his family, he will try to break her mother’s curse.
I’m not going to say any more, besides what happens next is exquisitely well crafted. Avery’s journey, and the unspooling of the lives of her mother and grandmother, are beautifully realised, even when the nature of what’s happening is far from beautiful. Avery’s relationship with Tane is truly moving, and his back story is harrowing. He is, perhaps, a little idealised, but I can forgive him that, because he is a truly beautiful character who loves Avery, and who wants to give her the world. Because I’m not a fan of emotional description, I did find the book a little repetitive in places, but that is purely a personal thing; I’m sure other readers would love this aspect, and so I’m not pointing to it as a fault – I just preferred the more action-driven scenes. Luckily, there are plenty of those.
I really recommend this book. It’s so realistic that it reads like historical fiction, while also being so fantastical that it is like magical realism, while also offering up one of the most real, and touching, love relationships in YA literature that I’ve read. It was a compelling, beautiful read and I’ll certainly be checking out Kendall Kulper’s future work.