“My family is done with little girls”

Warning: This review contains spoilers

More than half way through Salt and Storm I was still wondering whether I was reading a good book or a terrible one. The potential was right there and for a huge chunk of the novel I thought the execution would meet head-on the promising topics it raised. Not so much.

If Avery Roe knew one thing about her life, it was that she was supposed to be the next Roe Witch—the next in the matriarchal line of witches that protect Prince Island. It was her destiny, her duty and what she desired the most. Growing up with her grandmother in the small cottage they shared she learned about the pain that came attached to being a witch and about the precarious balance between the Roe Witches and the islander—those they were supposed to protect but who could turn against them as soon as tragedy occurred. She was still too young to know what it was exactly that would turn her into the Witch, but she knew the time couldn’t be too far away, as her grandmother grew older and frail.

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But Avery’s mother has other plans. When Avery is just 12 years old, she takes her away from her grandmother to the other side of the island. Her mother’s own magic prevents Avery from going back but Avery knows it’s only a matter of bidding her time. Then one night she has a nightmare that predicts her own murder. Knowing that a Roe Witch can never be killed, Avery feels that the time has come to replace her grandmother and become the witch so she won’t die. She will do anything it takes to get across the island and talk to her.

That’s when she meets a young harpoon boy named Tan—who has tattoos that contain foreign magic that can both hurt and aid Avery. But as the two fall in love, their association might lead to bigger sacrifices than she is willing to make. Cue Tragic Love Story.

Do you know those frustrating stories where everything could be avoided if only people talked to each other? This is one of them. People have half conversations, keep secrets for the most convoluted of reasons in an attempt to create tension that only results in a forced and protracted narrative, on that repeats itself continuously—a lot of it is spent with Avery raging against the world and her mother, wanting to become the witch, wondering why is she not the witch yet, over and over again.

One of the secrets people don’t talk about is the “mystery” behind what exactly makes the Witch. It makes no sense whatsoever that her mother and grandmother would not share this with Avery—it’s the sort of information that would make everybody’s life less miserable. Said mystery is one that is at the centre of this tale and is one that’s both confusing and predicated on a convoluted, heteronormative and misogynist “curse” (who cursed them? No one knows): Each woman will fall in love only once and that man will get her pregnant with the next witch and then betray/hurt them, and out of that pain they will become a witch.

At first, I hoped the book was doing this clever thing of questioning the nature of this curse, the fact that it’s only women cursed, that they need to fall in love with a man and have them break their hearts and perhaps this would tie up with a general outlook at how patriarchy lets us all down, except the story goes nowhere with this and does not do anything to actively challenge it. Instead, you have an execution and an ending that effectively reinforces the misogynist nature of this curse and often places blame on the girls themselves (“my family is done with little girls”). In the end, Avery does turn the story on its head by reinterpreting past events—but that hopeful interpretation does not, cannot erase the story that came before. Because each and every one of the previous Roe Witches did only become the Roe Witch once they had their hearts broken by their One True Love That Was a Man.

But enough of this. Let’s talk about that other thing that I found wrong with Salt and Storm: Tane. More to the point, the fact that Tane is a “Polynesian” character in what is effectively an awful, othering mishmash of different cultures and backgrounds. In the notes, the author elaborates on how Tane speaks the Māori language, has Samoan and Yantra-like tattoos that are magical and oh-so foreign and a tragic past that is inspired by the Moriori people. As though these different peoples and cultures are interchangeable and there to be cherry picked in the name of diversity. Worst even is how Tane, the only PoC in the story, dies in the end sacrificing himself so that the white-girl witch can live on. There is not enough head-desking to convey my frustration at all of this. The call for diversity in books is a worthy fight that is close and dear to my heart. But please, please can we be more respectful, vigilant and thoughtful when we go about it?  

Ultimately, Salt and Storm is a book that is rife, rife with potential to thoughtfully engage with questions of patriarchy, misogyny and fate but which doesn’t really go beyond the surface and instead loses itself in a repetitious, convoluted, othering, overly dramatic and poorly conceived execution.

In Book Smugglerish: I don’t even know how to rate this.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can also find them on Twitter.