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Nathan’s review of The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw

If you are looking for a dark, prose-forward, and violent fairy-tale, look no further than The Salt Grows Heavy.

We’ve all heard the classic story before: A mermaid gives up her voice to be with the human man she loves. But this story is much darker than the Disney movie you might be thinking about. This mermaid loses her voice when the humans cut her tongue out from her body. When she and her human lover have daughters, these daughters aren’t messing around. They kill all of the humans, and our mermaid protagonist is now on the run. She meets up with an androgynous plague doctor with a dark past, and they travel together until they reach a small village where the children play murderous games, and the government is controlled by three prophet-surgeons. The Mermaid and Plague Doctor have one primary goal: survive.

There are so many wonderful elements to this novella that I don’t even know where to begin.

Khaw’s prose is beautiful and transportive. Their prose is evocative of the old fairy tale style, but with an elevated and modern twist. Khaw took the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and more and somehow further twisted their narratives into the gothic and horrifying. It is obvious that Khaw carefully selected each and every word to achieve just the right connotation; just the right emotional response; just the right poetic beat. I found myself often needing to go back and re-read passages because I was so swept up in Khaw’s words that I wasn’t actually following the story. (I was also glad that I read this book on a Kindle because there were a lot of words that I had to look up in the dictionary!)

Take just the opening passages of the book. I read those first few pages at least three times as I was swept away by Khaw’s lyrical description of the Mermaid’s daughters murdering their father while their house burned down. It even took me a moment to realize that that was happening because the prose was so poetic, so metaphorical.

Khaw populates her world with mysterious characters that come to (eerie and sinister) life. Both the Mermaid the Plague Doctor are well-drawn and complex characters. The Mermaid is our POV character throughout the novella, and so we see the world through her lens. She is a character who thought she found love and happiness, but was quickly escorted into a terrible situation that only got worse. As readers, it is easy to empathize with her plight, and we cheer her on through her trials and triumphs. However, to me, and maybe it was because they weren’t the POV character, the more interesting of our two main characters was the Plague Doctor. Khaw slowly peels away their mask (both literally and figuratively) as we get to know their dark past and foreboding future. The Plague Doctor brings a jovial sadness to the novella that felt so very real and so very human.

This novella is not for the easily grossed out or faint of heart. Khaw never goes too far, and the horror elements never feel exploitative, but their descriptions of the dark, bloody, and gross things that the Mermaid and Plague Doctor encounter and experience made my skin tingle. I am one of those people who gets a small pain in my knee if someone is talking about how they hurt their knee, and so I was experiencing these little sensations from the images that Khaw conjured up in this little novella. The book isn’t scary, but it is dread-inducing as Khaw takes us through this mysteriously horrifying village located within this greater horrifying world.

Through all of the body horror, the sinister surgeons, and the violent villagers, this is a story of love between two broken people crossing a shattered landscape together. Despite its short length, the relationship between the Mermaid and the Plague Doctor grows organically. It’s not a fantasy-romance by any means, but it two people finding each both despite and because of the macabre.

I always feel that my role as a reviewer is to help set reader expectations for the books that I review. So, I will say this – if you are primarily a plot reader than this book may not be for you. Readers who do not care about the actual prose or writing of the book (or who value other elements of fiction writing more) may find this novella over-written (some may even call the prose purple) and bloated in its writing. While the Khaw definitely revels in some of the horror elements, particularly in the latter half of the novella, much of the novella is also slow and contemplative. If you aren’t swept up in Khaw’s world and writing in the first few pages, then nothing the novella does later really changes that.

For me, the entire thing really worked and I enjoyed spending an evening in Khaw’s messed up world. This was my first book by Cassandra Khaw, and I will now make sure to go seek out more.

Concluding Thoughts: This novella won’t be for everyone as The Salt Grows Heavy is unlike anything I’ve ever read. It is a gorgeously grotesque fairy-tale lead by two memorable characters finding love in a disturbing world. Readers who love lyrical prose, body horror, and very slanted fairy tale retellings should definitely check this one out.


Thank you for reading my review of The Salt Grows Heavy!


Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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