Avery Roe knows her birthright is to serve Prince Island as its witch. Roe women have been on Prince Island off the coast of Massachusetts for generations working charms and other magic to keep whaling ships safe and profitable. The magic sings in Avery’s blood; the call of the island reverberates through her bones.
Avery’s efforts to unlock her magic and succeed her grandmother as the next witch have been thwarted these past four years by Avery’s mother who turned her back on magic as surely as she has kept Avery trapped in a fancy house living a lie.
When Avery becomes a whale in her dreams, she knows what it means. She knows the murdered whale signifies her own murder. And soon.
Her only hope is to become the Roe Witch before fate catches up with her. You can beat a Roe Witch within an inch of her life, you can sicken her with strange magic and scar her, but you cannot kill a Roe Witch. If Avery can unlock her magic in time with the help of a mysterious harpoon boy named Tane, she might be safe. But magic seldom works the way a person wants and changing fate is an even rarer thing in Salt & Storm (2014) by Kendall Kulper.
Salt & Storm is Kulper’s first novel.
Kulper expertly combines historical details with tantalizing bits of fantasy to create a sweeping story that spans three generations. Although this story ostensibly focuses on Avery, and although there is a bit of a romance, Salt & Storm is a story about family at its core.
Avery is a prickly character for the most part. She is driven and sometimes selfish to the point of self-absorption. Although Kulper aptly demonstrates Avery’s growth as a character her default response to almost everything in the story remains anger or rashly impulsive decision making.
As Avery struggles to unlock and understand her magic, she also begins to learn more about the grandmother she was taken from at a young age and the mother she never allowed herself to understand. Compared to the larger themes of family and obligation, it is a disservice to focus too heavily on the romantic relationship in this story which honestly felt more like a plot device than anything resembling actual chemistry.
As you can tell there are several things that are done very well here. Kulper’s writing, in fact, is lovely and the historical details about whaling are integrated very well into the story. While Avery is far from likable or clever for most of the story, her selfishness makes sense and she is at least unapologetic. Avery knows who she is and who she wants to be if nothing else.
There are two real problems with this story.The first problem is that Avery has no agency. Throughout the story she talks about having power and being in charge–but she never is. Now you could say that is because she doesn’t have her magic yet. Except Avery’s mother is at the mercy of her husband and Avery’s grandmother has the entire town as a threat to her own freedom. The idea of the Roe witch is couched in the idea of independence but that is ultimately just lip service at best. I won’t spoil the story but even the way in witch Roe women unlock their magic is one that lacks any degree of agency or power as things are visited upon these women rather than the women choosing to do anything in their own right.
The second problem-one I wasn’t even sure I wanted to talk about at first because it is such a big problem–is Tane (and this part to follow will have some spoilers so you have been warned). This mysterious tattooed boy may eventually have Avery’s heart but he has no history of his own. His entire culture has been wiped out. And, even if we were to let that stand, Tane’s origins come from an amalgam of sources. Instead of being an authentic representation of any one source Tane is reduced to a pastiche that is meant to appear exotic without any real purpose.
Worse is the fact that Tane dies in the end. We can talk about plot points and whether this was necessary but the key thing to remember here is that Tane dies. Not Avery or her relatives. Not any of the sailors we meet. Tane, the only minority character, dies. Tane was already problematic before all this but to kill off the only person of color in the entire novel means something.
I’m sure none of this was intentional on the part of the author, but even unintentionally killing off literally the only PoC character in a novel is deeply problematic particularly when that death becomes a plot point to move along the main (white) character’s story.
There is a lot of potential here and, as I said, Kulper’s writing is lovely and she is absolutely an author to watch. While this story features magical elements, Salt & Storm remains firmly grounded in its historical context creating a story that will appeal to historical fiction and fantasy lovers alike so long as they can turn a blind eye to the problems already mentioned.
You can also head over to Kirkus to see what Ana from The Book Smugglers has to say about this book (which is an often more eloquent analysis than what I’ve put together here).
Possible Pairings: Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Clariel by Garth Nix, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater