Summary from Goodreads:
Avery Roe wants only to claim her birthright as the witch of Prince Island and to make the charms that have kept the island's sailors safe at sea for generations, but instead she is held prisoner by her mother in a magic-free life of proper manners and respectability.
Avery thinks escape is just a matter of time, but when she has a harrowing nightmare, she can see what it means: She will be killed. She will be murdered. And she's never been wrong before.
Desperate to change her future, Avery finds a surprising ally in Tane—a tattooed harpoon boy with magic of his own, who moves her in ways she never expected. But as time runs out to unlock her magic and save herself, Avery discovers that becoming a witch requires unimaginable sacrifice.
Without a doubt, this book is unlike anything I’ve read. It’s also a very promising debut for Kendall Kulper, and if she can do this well with her first novel, I see no reason why she shouldn’t have a very successful career. There have been several successful historical-paranormal hybrids in the past—many of which were YA—but I think Salt & Storm is the most unique of the lot. And though uniqueness doesn’t always equate with a quality novel, it does count for something.
The story, at face value, is simple, mostly because though things do happen, this novel’s pace is sluggish, and Kulper is slow to arrive upon her end goal. Additionally, the book is a bit longer than genre/category standards. I admit that I would have appreciated a more snappy pace—Avery, the book narrator, tends to dwell too much on internal things that don’t necessarily inform the plot or characterization in a meaningful way. When one considers that the driving force behind Salt & Storm is the fact that Avery is about to be murdered, it seems like this book should be a bit more forceful and high-stakes, rather than moody and elegiac (at best).
Even the beginning doesn’t make as much of an impact as it could have. Kulper introduces us to Avery in a roundabout, second-hand fashion, and the reader learns of her impending murder through a hazy dream in the second chapter. Throughout the book the reader is led to understand that Avery is in a sense of great emotional urgency, but that is not translated from character to reader. Salt & Storm moves slowly and takes a lot of time to discuss Avery’s ancestors and various events from her childhood that, while expanding upon her character, are distracting in the long run.
It’s also surprising that, despite the clumsy exposition and lengthy explorations of Avery’s state of mind, I didn’t feel much for Avery at any point in this book. She seemed to me to be very single-minded and childish, and she ignored facts in order to keep her worldview constant. The very first chapter characterizes Avery’s mother as the antagonist, when Avery claims that “if the people of my island blame anyone, better [my mother] than me.” The book is clearly narrated in retrospect—Avery looking back on events, rather than relaying them in the moment—so from this opening statement, I would have expected Avery’s mother to be a nuanced villain. Instead, I find that Avery’s mother is the single-most sympathetic character in the entire book, and I was massively displeased with both Kulper’s treatment of her, and with Avery’s childish and small-minded interactions with her parent. The relationship between mother and daughter is the single most problematic element in Salt & Storm.
Salt & Storm establishes early on that Avery’s mother is bad. She’s obsessed with being prim and proper and having status, and has forced her daughter to leave behind everything she wants in order to mold her into the ideal lady. Avery resents this—her only desire in life is to return to her grandmother’s house and become the witch she believes she’s fated to be. However, Avery’s mother has a great deal of nuance to her that Avery mostly ignores, which I found to be frustrating especially when the events of the second half of the book come into play. Avery’s mother, we learn in early stages, was brutally attacked by Avery’s father—the reason for this attack was entirely due to her heritage as a witch. Small wonder, then, that Avery’s mother has turned her back on magic and is attempting to keep her daughter from it as well; she is trying to save her daughter from pain, not cruelly or ignorantly ruining her daughter’s life. Yet at no point in Salt & Storm does Avery explicitly acknowledge this—in fact, she does just the opposite, adopting a singularly victim-blaming attitude: “‘I’m not you,’ I said quietly, and she blinked, as if coming out of a trance, ‘I’m not going to make your mistakes’” (emphasis mine).
One wonders: what mistake did Avery’s mother make? How, in any way, can we consider the brutal attack upon a woman by her romantic partner to be in any way that woman’s fault? While Avery has grown up resentful of her mother, I find it troubling that Kendall Kulper would allow that troubled relationship to come out in a way that’s so evidently fueled by misogyny and the patriarchy.
I think in some ways we are supposed to look upon Avery’s story in Salt & Storm as a story of liberation from the pain caused by unhealthy relationships with men. Yet at the end of the book, Avery has no positive relationships with any other women, and the most striking example we have of how she interacts with her own gender is characterized by modern rape culture and willful ignorance. So I ask, if this story of liberation does not include Avery’s realization that what her mother did, she did out of her very present love for her child, what kind of liberation is it, truly?
If Kulper meant to portray Avery’s mother as the antagonist, she failed indeed. The true villain in Salt & Storm is a combination of magic and men, and any “misdeeds” Avery’s mother committed were a direct result of the pain she suffered at the hands of men—this is not to say that Avery’s mother makes no mistakes, but should we really place all the blame on her shoulders? The fact that in the opening chapter, Avery names her mother as being culpable for the events of the book rather than her own father is unsettling on many levels.
And all this is not to say that Salt & Storm is a terrible book—it’s not. The potential for a strong, female-led narrative is there, and the freedom Avery finds at the end of the story is rewarding, because it’s been hardwon. Because though she breaks free of her curse, she still suffers pain at the hands of men. The struggle for liberation left its mark on her in the end, and the reader does feel for Avery and her loss.
In the end, Salt & Storm’s chief mistake is that it casts the wrong person as the antagonist, which leads both to confusion as to the author’s intention regarding reader sympathy, and a failure to really bring the story to a new height of achievement. Kendall Kulper has given readers nothing truly terrible in this book—it’s a unique blend of magic and 19th century seafaring culture, and it features a protagonist who is self-sufficient and fights toward her end goals. The underlying subtext was troubling and problematic, but regardless, Salt & Storm is a debut with many good ideas and promising elements that, in spite of not coming together perfectly, still provided an enjoyable novel.