So the idea of Catherine Morland’s Reading List came mostly from the fact that I am a huge Gothic fiction/mystery fan. Before I met Jane Austen, and still do, I devoured books that I know, if Catherine Morland was real and alive, she would have been reading.
It started with reading one, and then before I knew it I had a list of thirty I was planning on eventually reviewing. What can I say…
The next book I think Catherine Morland would read is…
House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig
So when this book passed my desk at the library, I immediately had to read it. The title, cover, fairy tale foundation, all tied up with a Gothic bow…you know me!
So the foundation of the story is The 12 Dancing Princesses, one of my favorites. In the original tale a King has 12 daughters who he locks up in his house every night, but every morning they are tired and their dancing shoes worn out. The king decrees that any man who finds out where they go each night and how, can marry any of the girls, and be King. However, if he does not figure it out in three days-the man will be killed. A soldier wounded from war and at a loss of what to do, is wandering through the woods were he mets an older lady. Some versions he helps her, others she sees his heart, but either way she gives him advice not to drink the wine served by the princesses and gives him an invisible cape.
That night, the soldier is almost convinced to drink the wine by the pretty princesses, but remembers the warning. He pretends and after he falls asleep, a trapdoor opens up in the floor and the girls get dressed, grab their shoes, get in a gondola, and pass silver, gold, and jewel encrusted trees to a ball in the underworld. There all the girls dance with dead princes, clearly under a spell. In the version I like, these princes want the girls as their brides to rule the underworld with them, and as the girls sleep less and less they are knocking on death’s door. The soldier goes reveals the truth, marrying one of the princesses. I have always been interested in the macabre tale, you know me and Gothic tales, so I was excited to see what Craig was going to do in her adaption.
Annaleigh lives in a beautiful castle, Highmoor, on an island in the sea. She is sixth of 12 daughters, having a happy childhood until her mother passed in the last daughter’s childbirth.
Since then, life has turned grim. Not too long after their mother’s death, the eldest sister, Ava, passed away when plague slipped through the island. Ava was followed by Octavia when she fell off a tall library ladder and broke her neck. Then Elizabeth, who always suffered from bouts of melancholia died by suicide. Annaleigh and her sisters follow the custom of wearing black for six months, followed by six months of gray. The girls have been wearing mourning colors for the last few years, secluded in their home, not allowed to take part in balls and festivities, etc.
Their father, Duke of Salann Islands, has been free to travel, attend to business, etc. He remarried a young woman he met on the mainland, Morella, a woman young enough that many assume she is one of his 12 daughters.
Not too long after the marriage, another sister died, Eulalie…but this death feels different, wrong. Ava’s death was easily explained, all saw the pustules and knew of the fever. Octavia was always clumsy and falling or bumping into things. And Elizabeth, she had a long history of depression. But Eulalie was nothing like any of them. She was healthy and strong, she was graceful and never awkward or off balance, and above all she loved life. She wasn’t interested in inheriting the Duchy and becoming the Duchess of Salann, but she loved being a lady of the island and she loved men. She was the most gorgeous of the 12 and had so many admirers.
So why did she fall off the cliff? What was she even doing out at night? Was she meeting someone? Was she murdered?
No one believes Annaleigh, but she feels something is not right at all and starts investigating the death of her sister, against her father’s wishes.
However, life takes a far different turn when Morella announces in the middle of Eulalie’s funeral that she is pregnant, and with a son. Morella also refuses to follow the customs of the island and wants a ball to celebrate her pregnancy and combine it with a party to celebrate the younger girl’s reaching womanhood.
Annaleigh is against this whole thing, as it looks and feels like no one cares about Eulalie, but she is outvoted and a ball is set with each sister getting their own set of “fairie slippers” dancing shoes.
Annaleigh begins investigating on the sly and visits with the fishermen who found Eulalie’s body. They found her with a locket, the chain smashed, but they could read the inscription on the piece. It was from a lover…a lover she planned to run away with, but was stopped? Or a lover that murdered her?
She also meets a mysterious, handsome stranger, Cassius, who is on the island to take care of his sickly father. Cassius has otherworldly beauty and Annaleigh immediately falls for him.
All I can think is this stranger to be trusted, or is he going to bring more ruin on the household?
The ball comes, but it turns out to be a gloomy event. No one dances with the girls as they believe the house is cursed, that the girls carry death with them, people find it shocking that they aren’t even observing the proper grief rituals, etc. The ladies are sad, disheartened, lonely, and feel they will never escape grief, death, and gloom.
The house is full of grief, death, gloom, and tension. Verity, the youngest, starts feeling spirits and seeing things. Annaleigh starts to feel it too, seeing monsters. Are they full of grief and pain, or going crazy and cursed? Or could someone be trying to destroy the girls? Destroy their family?
An old family friend, Fisher, returns from being the lighthouse keeper and aids Annaleigh as her soundboard. He doesn’t offer much help, but does express a wish they could leave the island and the gossip of the curse. Annaleigh wishes the same thing, but knows her father will never let them go anywhere, they are in “mourning”. Fisher tells her stories of the gods, that there are “magic doors”, ones that allow them to go from their world to our world, easily transporting from island to capital, etc. If only, right?
Annaligh continues her investigations and finds a watch that Eulalie had. Inside was a lock of hair, a lock of blonde hair that matches Edgar Morris, the clock worker. He tells her they planned to run away that night, but when he got to their meeting place in the boat-someone, or something, knocked Eulalie over. So who, or what killed Eulalie? Or is Edgar lying and he is the murder?
No on believes him, but Annaleigh. The house grows darker and more depressed as the remaining girls realize the deaths of their older sisters have tainted them and they will never be able to escape…
Annaleigh wants raise their spirits and proposes searching for one of these “doors” Fisher mentioned earlier. They search the whole house and grounds but find nothing.
They decide to check the mausoleum, and when they get to the statue of the girl’s mother, they discover a door behid her. Fisher goes in first, followed by Annaleigh’s sisters Ligeia and Rosalie. After what seems like forever, the two return with an invitation to a masked ball. Uh oh, masked ball? Masked balls in Gothic stories don’t go so great.All the girls are excited for the ball, for a chance to be free from gloom and doom. The theme is nightmares and daydreams, each sister excitedly coming up with beautiful costumes after beautiful costume-again so pleased to wear something other than black or gray.
The girls continue to dance night after night, except for Annaleigh, and start changing from the girls she knew. Fisher tells Annaleigh he loves her, but when she refuses him, he disappears and so does her help. Edgar passes away, and with him Annaleigh’s link to finding more about Eulalie. And then some more of her sisters pass away.
Annaleigh continues to see, smell, and hear things-things no one else does. Is the house haunted by ghosts, by one of her sisters? Are they cursed? Is someone trying to make her go insane, or did they bargain with a trickster to drive them all insane?
Annaleigh is running out of time. She must find out who or what the culprit is.
I really enjoyed this story as it blended many things I love-gothic fiction, fairy tales, etc. It was a compelling story and a good mystery, one that I enjoyed and tried to guess who was behind it all. I figured it out who was doing it and why, but not the how.
I liked how Craig built the doom and gloom which explained why they wanted to go out and party, even at the risk of death for others and the change of who they are from the drinking and partying in the god’s world.
The only thing I didn’t like was that there was a character I really liked and he ended up passing away. Darn.
But otherwise, very good. Even my niece enjoyed it. She was drawn to the cover, like me, and sucked into the Gothic tale.
For more from Catherine Morland’s Reading List, go to Catherine Morland’s Reading List: The Distant Hours
For more on Gothic Novels, go to Catherine Morland’s Reading List: The Inn at Half Moon Bay
For more mysteries, go to An Insane Doctor, A Hysterical Herbalist, and Murder in a Magician’s Mansion + A Possible Persuasion Reference?
For more Fairy Tale retellings, go to Why I Still Love My Fair Godmother