Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper
Published: September 23, 2014, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Publisher via Netgalley
For all his experience with spells, he still didn’t understand what I have always known so well: magic seldom works the way you want.
Avery Roe’s life has been planned out for her since birth. She was born into the Roe family, which means that magic is in her blood and she is to be trained as the next Roe witch of her home, Prince Island. Avery has spent her childhood living with her grandma, the current Roe witch, and wants nothing more than to take her grandmother’s place someday.
Unfortunately, Avery is her mother’s daughter as much as her grandmother’s granddaughter. Her mother, who rejected the Roe birthright, decides that she does not want Avery taking up its mantle either, and takes Avery away with her to the other side of the island, so that they may live normal lives. But Avery doesn’t want to be normal when she can be a Roe witch, especially after she foresees her own murder in a dream. To take up her rightful place and circumvent her death (for Roe witches cannot be murdered), Avery is willing to do whatever it takes to break her mother’s enchantment and become reunited with her grandmother once more.
Salt & Storm is a book heavily steeped in both lore and history, yet neither element is all-encompassing or overwhelming. Rather, like the powers of the Roe women, this book gains its strength through subtleties. Roe witches have an immense amount of power over the people of Prince Island, for it is their magic that controls the ocean and keeps the sailors of their whaling community safe. But their magic has become so accepted by the island’s people that at times it becomes overlooked, and certainly taken for granted.
Kulper clearly did a lot of research for this book, which may involve magic and take place on a fictional island, but nevertheless relies heavily on the past. Prince Island is located off the coast of Massachusetts, near Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The island itself may not exist, but its culture and economy are very clearly based on real-life examples. Prince Island of the 1860s is on the precipice of major changes, as both the Civil War and Industrial Revolution pave ways for new ways of life and new economic challenges. The whaling industry, which is the lifeblood for the people of Prince Island, is gradually becoming more difficult to sustain, as whale populations begin to dwindle. Because the whaling industry is tangential to the major plot, Kulper reveals enough information to help readers grasp the economics of Avery’s world, with the understanding that much of her research, while not explicit in the novel, still manages to weave its way through the story.
The uncertainty and lack of purpose that the people of Prince Island feel creeping steadily toward them mirrors the struggles that Avery faces. Being the Roe witch is not the easiest or most rewarding job, and as the years exiled from her grandmother pile up, Avery begins to believe that she’ll never achieve her birthright. Despite submitting herself to all sorts of pain in an attempt to bring about her powers (which she’s heard are released through pain), they remain as out of reach from Avery as she is from her grandmother. Avery has her fair share of flaws, being spiteful and cold and entitled by turn, but her behavior is a result both of her feelings of incompleteness, that she should not be able to access her Roe inheritance, and fear for her life. All of this lends an air of believability and empathy to Avery’s actions, if not quite sympathy.
Where this novel really excels is in its depiction of the Roe women. In an era where women were still very much subservient to men, it is refreshing to read about this all-female family breaking conventions. The Roe line is sustained by each member giving birth to one female daughter, who will become her eventual successor. In addition to their water magic, each woman possesses her own unique brand of magic, such as Avery’s power to interpret dreams, her grandmother’s ability to control emotions, and her mother’s talent over love. The family line and its powers are entirely matriarchal, and while Avery learns that the influence of men cannot be entirely ignored, it is still women and the power of their choices that drive the plot forward.
That is not to say that the book -- or the Roe women in general -- are impervious to love. Love was Avery’s mother’s greatest downfall, as a man damaged both her pretty face and her desire to become the Roe witch in one fell swoop. What starts off as a simple bargain between Avery and an outsider -- her ability to interpret his dreams in exchange for his foreign magic to help her escape from her mother -- turns into so much more. Avery’s relationship with Tane is sweet if a bit unrealistic. It could have been abbreviated some, however, as its staying power lies mostly in the fact that in her relationship with Tane, Avery has a further opportunity to better understand herself. The relationships with much more power, however, are those between Avery and her grandmother, and between Avery and her mother.
The tone of this novel is very formal and elegiac at times. The story itself can be slow-moving, as much of it is related to Avery’s internal struggle to figure out what she wants -- and what she is willing to do to achieve her wishes. With all that in mind, I think the tone and writing style are well done.
I quite enjoyed reading Salt & Storm. It’s an unusual sort of story, and all the better for that. Kulper tackles questions of identity and power and family relationships. It’s certainly worth a read for those who enjoy more introspective, character-driven novels with more than a hint of magic.
Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: I received this review copy from Netgalley on behalf of the publisher, but that in no way affected my opinion.