The Salt Grows Heavy

Cover of The Salt Grows Heavy on background of white, red, and black.

by Cassandra Khaw

The more mermaid stories I read, the more aware I become that Disney and the makers of Splash greatly mislead me. (I know, we’re all shocked that Disney wouldn’t be an accurate fount of knowledge.) I was vaguely aware that mermaids had a mixed history in folklore, sometimes dragging sailors to their deaths, sometimes longing to come to shore. The Mermaid of Black Conch took a version of the latter, casting a mermaid as a cursed human who slowly reverts to human form after being captured and using it as a commentary on colonialism. All the Murmuring Bones, on the other, went all in on the mermaids as bad news lore.

And then there’s The Salt Grows Heavy, which devours The Little Mermaid and anyone foolish enough to believe a mermaid could be anything but deadly. Khaw weaves an incredible tale that feels so much larger than the novella appears. The quick plot summary is a mermaid and an unnamed plague doctor travel through a winter landscape, where they discover a community of unnerving children and the “saints” that raise them hidden in the forest. It’s dark, it’s gory, it made me very grateful for my lack of vivid imagination during certain scenes, and it’s beautiful.

Khaw’s writing makes me feel like one of the proverbial monkeys at a typewriter trying to accidentally write Shakespeare, but I’m ok with that. Right from the start, they hooked me with the opening description. Just to give you a taste:  

            Ash sleets from the firmament in soft handfuls of black, gathering in gauzy drifts around my ankles. The sky is ink and seething murk, whispering secrets to itself, the clouds snarled like long dark hair.

So if you’re looking for a horror story to kick off October, start here.


Since Halloween is coming up fast, I’m hoping to get a number of reviews out that fit with the spooky/scary/horror theme. We’ll see how that goes, but I suddenly seem to have a lot to work with!

River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer

Cover of River Sing Me Home on a blue throw blanket.

The official abolitions of slavery across the “New World” rarely marked the end of enslavement. Enslavers sought to maintain their grip on power and their supply of labor. They enacted or expanded practices like chain gang labor, sharecropping, “apprenticeships,” or just refusing to acknowledge slavery ended. But despite the disparity in power, the formerly enslaved resisted and rebelled in all manner of ways. In River Sing Me Home, Eleanor Shearer brings light to some of those stories.

River Sing Me Home opens with escape. Rachel is fleeing from the Barbados plantation where she had spent her life in bondage. It is August 1834 and the day before, the master of the plantation announced the abolition of slavery. In its place, the formerly enslaved would stay on the plantation and labor for another six years as “apprentices” – remaining bound to the land, free in name only. Rachel isn’t quite sure what freedom really means, but she knows this isn’t it.

Over the years, Rachel gave birth to eight children. One was stillborn, two more died in early childhood, and her enslaver sold the other five away from her. She has no idea where they ended up or if they’re even alive, but until she finds them or learns what happened, she knows she cannot be free. 

It’s a dangerous journey. If she is caught by the plantation owner, she faces terrible punishment. White landowners could shoot her, capture her, and re-enslave her. The elements and the sea could do her in. The chance to find her babies, however, is worth all the risks she can imagine and even those she can’t.

River Sing Me Home covers a lot of ground relatively quickly, both literally and figuratively. Rachel’s journey takes her across Barbados, down to British Guiana, and then across to Trinidad in a year. The prose is succinct and straightforward, even though the issues are deep and complex. Shearer introduces us to Maroon colonies, free Black business owners, Indigenous survivors of colonialism, and the enslaved who endured plantation life and how all of these different groups intersected and interacted. She ties in real slave rebellions and revolts, and the difficult calculus those involved had to make for themselves.

Shearer does not hide from the violence of slavery, but neither does she make it a central focus. She trusts that we know about the beatings, the floggings, the rapes and so while they’re present, she generally does not describe them in detail. At first, I was a little surprised by this, but as the book continued, I really appreciated the focus on how people survived and continued to find hope, love, and purpose despite all they endured. Shearer doesn’t wallow in suffering; she acknowledges it, recognizes its effects, and then shows it is only a piece of a person and a people, not their entirety.

Rachel’s journey is one undertaken by so many across the Americas in slavery’s aftermath. Though fictional, it is based on the story of a real Mother Rachel, who walked across Antigua in search of her children after slavery’s end. It is also based on the author’s family, who hail from the Caribbean, and her own research and fieldwork.

Overall, River Sing Me Home is a strong novel that continues to deepen our understanding of slavery and its aftermath. In a time when certain powers are trying to strip that understanding away from us, these stories are even more important. 

Find it here

City of Orange by David Yoon

The book, City of Orange, on an outdoor table with trees in the background.

This is the type of book that’s tricky to review, because a big part of the story is not knowing what is going on. To discuss plot points, then, inevitably spoils the revelations the narrator has along the way.

The premise is this: a man wakes up with a head injury and no real memory of anything, other than knowing the world has ended and he must try to survive in this post-apocalyptic world. Memories return in flashes, often triggered by images or words found in the detritus scattered under the overpass serving as his home for the moment. Some are helpful, like the time spent with a survivalist friend.  But others seem too painful, so he does what he can to avoid them. But he seems unlikely to survive if he can’t figure out what happened to humanity. 

David Yoon does a masterful job of weaving in humor among the wreckage of a man and his world. As our narrator attempts to piece things together and survive, he makes jokes to himself or compares his situation to a variety of books and movies from Robinson Crusoe to Cast Away.  He wonders what might be going on in the rest of the world, what happened to the survivalists, and whether anyone might be searching for him. But as those thoughts form, he immediately tries to run from them, as though his brain still knows that nothing but pain and danger lurk in that direction. And yet, he can’t avoid them.

Dystopian/apocalyptic stories used to be some of my favorites.  But over the recent past, they’ve become much harder for me to read. (For instance, I loved Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, but it also caused my anxiety to spike while reading. To Paradise was another example, specifically the last third.) I didn’t really have that problem with City of Orange. Maybe it was the humor or the narrowness of focus (all we know is what our narrator sees around him). Or maybe I’ve just gotten better about it.* Whatever the reason, if you’ve found yourself burnt out on the genre or uneasy about stepping in, this is a good book to test the waters. And if you still love these stories, it’s a great addition.  

Find it here.

*Between writing that sentence and posting this review, I’ve collected more data, and nope, I haven’t gotten better about it.

Books for Pride

I have mixed feelings about designated months to honor specific groups. The con of them is the idea that we only really care or spotlight a group for a particular set time and then move on. Since it’s currently pride month, we’ll focus on LGBTQ+ rights. It’s easy to fall into the trap of making a show of support by changing one’s profile frame or corporations suddenly sporting rainbow merch or whatever, just to pull it as soon as the month ends. But on the other hand, even corporate rainbow washing is a better than the full-on assault on LGBTQ+ rights. (And it’s also encouraging that a number of brands see being inclusive as more profitable than being bigoted, even if they will continue to support both sides.) 

So despite my misgivings on joining in on that, I decided to make this a post of mini-reviews of books written by LGBTQ+ authors and/or include LGBTQ+ characters. To be clear, this is not meant to be a “Best Of” list or “Most Popular” or “Most Influential” list.  It’s simply just “hey, here’s what I’ve read relatively recently.” (Nor is it a comprehensive list at that!) 

It should come as no surprise that many of the books currently being banned or challenge focus on race and sexuality.  It’s what a vocal group of people fear most: Our children learning to identify with people who might be different from them, to understand and accept that our history is messy and full of complexity, that our present is full of those messes and complexity. And even worse – learning that people who are different from them are just as worthy of the same rights and experiences and representation as they are.   

I’m a strong believer in the power of fiction. Being able to jump into another person’s mind, to live a life that is similar or different from your own and actually see the world through their eyes – it’s a unique thing that fiction can bring. Don’t get me wrong – non-fiction, scholarly tomes, biographies and autobiographies are vital too.  But as a historian, while I could imagine what a person might be thinking or feeling, if I didn’t have evidence, I couldn’t claim that. Fiction, especially when reading from a diverse source of authors, can give us a glimpse into those lived experiences and hopefully help us broaden our own horizons.  It’s why I try to make a point of bringing in a variety of authors and genres here (including nonfiction from time to time!).  

So without further ado, let’s jump in! 

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

 I forget where I learned of this book, but it’s what brought me over to the Horror section of the bookstore and kept me coming back for more.  Plain Bad Heroines is like getting multiple books in one and I loved all of them. The best way to categorize it is a sapphic gothic horror novel.   One story thread takes place at a girls’ school in Rhode Island, called Brookhants, around the turn of the 20th century. Young girls are mysteriously dying and the deaths seem connected to a scandalous book. In the present day, another young woman writes a best-selling book about the mystery of Brookhants, and it’s now being turned into a movie. We follow the author and the actresses who will be starring in the film as they arrive at Brookhants and mysterious things begin happening again.

This was an impossible-to-put-down book, full of great (lesbian) characters, creepy yellow jackets, illustrations, and mystery.  Danforth does a fantastic job of jumping from one story line to the other.  My standard for judging such works is whether I get mad when I have to leave one character’s narrative to jump to another and then get mad when I have to jump back – it’s a sign of engrossing both/all tales are and Danforth delivers in spades.  Also, it’s not gory horror, so if that’s a concern, rest assured that this is still good reading for you! 

The Library of the Unwritten by A.J. Hackwith

 You can check out the review for this series here, but I wanted to include it again here because of the gay romances included throughout.  This is an example of works where the sexuality of characters aren’t the main focus, but just a natural part of the tapestry of the story.  

The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar 

This was a beautiful story, both in terms of what it was about, but also the writing itself. There are two main stories interwoven here. The first is a Syrian-American transboy, dealing with the aftermath of his mother’s death while struggling to find his true self as he takes care of his grandmother in New York City. His mother died while campaigning to save the remaining buildings of Little Syria, both to preserve the history of the early generations of Syrian immigrants, but also because she claims an incredibly rare species of bird had made its nest there.

It is the questionable existence of this species that ties the present to the story of the past, based on a diary of letters written by a Syrian girl who came to New York with her parents following the first world war. It is her diary that our narrator finds and which helps him piece together his own family’s history. 

There are so many identities to learn from in this story. Our main character in the present is still grappling with his identity, so much so that his name is scribbled out at the start of each of his chapters for most of the book.  We are not given the advantage of knowing who he is before he knows himself. Joukhardar himself hadn’t come out as trans yet when he started the book, which serves as an interesting parallel.   But more than just the trans aspect, we get insights to the immigrant experience, what it means to be Arab American, Muslim, and part of the LGBTQ+ community all in one story. And on top of that, the constant imagery of birds calls us to both stay grounded but also soar above the everyday, to hold fast to the possibility of the undiscovered and the unknown.   (I also highly recommend Joukhardar’s book The Map of Salt and Stars.) 

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher 

Another book I’ve previously reviewed, but with a nonbinary narrator.  And an example of an author I probably wouldn’t have found if I hadn’t ventured over to the Horror section to find Plain Bad Heroines.  

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune. 

The pull quote on the top of the cover from V.E. Schwab reads “I loved it.  It is like being wrapped up in a big gay blanket.  Simply perfect.” I don’t think I could sum it up better myself.   

Linus is a perfectly ordinary government employee charged with assessing the well-being of magical children in what is essentially foster care situations. When he gets summoned to a particularly tricky case under top secret status, his world gets turned around.  As he gets to know the children he’s observing, including Lucy, the literal son of the devil, he finds himself falling for their caregiver and facing a question of where his loyalties truly lay.   

Having read both this and Under the Whispering Door, one of the things I appreciate most about Klune is his ability to portray the power of love. Whether it’s romantic love between two men, or the fierce protective love of friends, or the sacrificial love of parental figures, it triumphs over all the forces working to tear it asunder. It’s a powerful message and one worth keeping at the forefront of our minds.   

Persephone Station by Stina Leicht  

Check out the review here. It’s again one of these books where the gender norms aren’t the main focus, but the diversity in sexualities and gender are just part of the world. Which is really where we hope to get to, isn’t? 

The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis  

New sci-fi series! In this distant future, Earth has been through some pretty rough times. Colonization occurred on Mars, Venus, and Mercury, but humanity has taken different paths based on where they lived. Earth and Mars (the people of which become known as the Geans) endured a war between each other, there was some kind of revolt by A.I./androids who have disappeared past the asteroid belt, and Venus and Mercury (the Icarii) spent the war years focusing on developing their own technology and human genetic augmentation.  

Meanwhile, the Geans have created a religious system headed by the Mother. Below her are the Sisters – women who lose the ability to speak so they can be sent out among the Gean soldiers as confessors and “comforters” and not be able to pass on anything they may learn in those roles. A Sister on board a Gean ship must be available to any and all soldiers, unless she is made First Sister and claimed by the Captain. She then serves the Captain until the end of the Captain’s service, though the captain can also choose to bring the First Sister with them when they retire.  

Such is the situation First Sister finds herself in as the book opens. She is ready to leave her ship and go live with her captain. But as she gets ready to start her new life, she finds that powers outside her control have new plans for her, consigning her back to the ship and tasking her to spy on the newest captain, war hero Saito Ren. At the same time, on Venus, Icarri warrior Lito sol Lucius is still coming to terms with the disastrous battle with the Geans in which his partner, Hiro, disappeared. He is given a new mission – one he’s not sure he can complete.  

The book switches perspectives between First Sister and Lito. There’s quite a bit of diversity in terms of gender and sexuality, though none of it is seen as a big deal. I’ve seen the book labeled as “space opera,” which I’m not sure I totally get, but it’s definitely an interesting story. I recently finished the trilogy and more characters are introduced and we get their perspectives in the second and third books.  It’s a well-done series, though I encourage you to read the books as close to one another as you can. Each book picks up pretty quickly after the previous left off and there isn’t a lot of review about what happened previously (which is nice when you’re starting the next one immediately, but makes it a bit more difficult if you had to wait a year for the next one and were too anxious to read it that you didn’t go back and re-read the previous).   

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I’ll confess that while we read The Iliad in high school, I never really connected with it and don’t remember much of it at all. If we had read this as well, I probably would’ve gotten a lot more out of it! (Though I’m guessing the gay love story probably wouldn’t have gone over well with some parents. It’s easier to ignore that when you’re slogging through Homer’s verse.) With a BA and MA in Classics, Miller does a fantastic job of letting us see Achilles through the eyes of Patroclus in a book that is hard to put down. 

I first read Miller’s book Circe, which took me down the rabbit hole of retelling of classics/mythology. (Big shout out to Natalie Haynes as well.  I just finished reading her newest book, Stoneblind, about Medusa, and can’t recommend enough!) Because Miller draws so much from the classics, The Song of Achilles is a reminder that homosexuality isn’t a modern development and that these love stories stretch back through the ages.   

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon 

I’ve read several books now by Rivers Solomon (fae/faer pronouns) and I’d recommend them all. Faer books are amazing, but tough. Solomon is not going to hold any punches or do anything to make you feel more comfortable with the realities fae creates, which are centered on Black pain and trauma and how one works through and within those. While race is a primary lens through which Solomon writes, gender and sexuality are integral as well. An Unkindness of Ghosts in particular brings those discourses to the fore.  

Set far in the future, the remainder of humanity is wandering through space in a giant ship, looking for the promise land. Generations have lived and died on board and all sorts of social structures have cropped up, most prominently a version of Antebellum Southern plantations. White elites live in the upper portions of the ship, where they enjoy warmth, food, nature reserves, and all sorts of other luxuries. The maintenance and labor needed to provide those luxuries and keep the ship in working order falls on the darker skinned people, monitored and overseen by White guards who have the freedom to treat those under them however they please. In addition to the stark racial lines, strict gender binaries are also prized by the ruling elites, while gender is recognized as being more fluid among the lower decks (one floor refers to everyone as “she” unless told differently; another uses “they” as the default pronoun; etc.).

Even among her people, Aster is different and an outsider. Social nuances frustrate her, as does non-specific language. She doesn’t quite identify as either male or female, though she is all too aware of how the guards see her. Yet her medical knowledge and abilities bring her some measure of respect and her unlikely friendship with the ship’s Surgeon grants her a few meager privileges. But life on the ship has become even more unbearable than usual and it’s up to Aster, with the help of her sister-in-all-but-blood Giselle, to unravel the mystery left behind by her mother’s death by suicide.

In some ways, I couldn’t help but think of this book as a really, really dark version of Wall-E. The Earth was so polluted and destroyed by humanity, they had no choice but to board a giant ship and take their chances out in space. But after several centuries, things have greatly deteriorated. Rather than having anthropomorphic robots take care of everyone, though, it’s a reversion to race-based segregation and forced labor. Solomon mostly keeps us with Aster as our narrator, but from time-to-time fae switches perspectives to a handful of other characters, namely Giselle and the Surgeon. The story helps interrogate ideas about sexuality, race, gender, power, and trauma while also creating an interesting world in a sci-fi setting. Like I said, Solomon’s books aren’t for a quick, lighthearted read. Fae demands you grapple with the past and the present, that you acknowledge the violence and harm continually perpetuated on others and Others. But you’re also rewarded with an amazingly written story for your efforts. 

Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki 

I delayed this post slightly just so I could include this one as well.  Aoki serves up an amazing blend of fantasy and sci-fi in a story set in our present, everyday world.  Light from Uncommon Stars has two primary characters: Shizuka Satomi, a violinist who made a deal with the devil and Katrina Nguyen, a transgender girl running away to escape her abusive father.  Satomi needs to deliver seven souls to Hell in order to free her own. She has already sent six; Katrina looks like the ideal seventh.  At the same time, however, Satomi meets an alien captain who fled with her family from her planet’s war and is hiding in plain sight as the owner of a doughnut shop.   

It’s impressive how seamlessly all these narratives fit together. In addition to the literal demon and the aliens is Katrina’s struggles as she tries to protect herself and nurture her talent with the violin. Because while Satomi is dealing with representatives from Hell, Katrina is constantly trying to defend herself from the hate, fear, and loathing that comes with being a transwoman. When she meets Satomi, who offers to teach her to hone her musical skills, Katrina is naturally suspicious, but soon realizes she doesn’t have many other choices.  Sometimes, the devil you don’t know is preferable after all.   

I really loved this book. I enjoyed spending time with these characters and I was aching to know how it would end. While it’s generally written in a positive tone, Aoki does not shy away from what Katrina goes through and what she’s done to survive and to make money. She doesn’t dwell in the acts of abuse, rape, misgendering, hate-filled screeds, etc., but she doesn’t hide from them or pretend they don’t have any long-term effects. Right off the bat, it’s hard not to want someone – anyone – to just hug and care for this girl.  It’s enraging to think of the abuse heaped upon her from her own parents and then even more enraging to know this is exactly what so many trans youth are enduring now. And if you don’t understand what it might be like, this book (and so many more!) can hopefully give you a glimpse and help you better know why pronouns matter, why love and acceptance is so crucial and what a profound difference that can make.   

So that’s where I’ll leave it for now.  It’s great to see more and more characters across the gender and sexuality spectrum appear in novels these days.  If you have any favorites, add them here!

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Book covers of The Poppy War, The Dragon Republic, and The Burning God with a phoenix wing across the top of the Dragon Republic.

“What if Mao had been a young girl” – and had access to magic and gods? Such is the premise on which R.F. Kuang bases her fantasy trilogy, starting with The Poppy War.  It’s a fascinating basis for a story.

The story follows Fang Runin, who goes by Rin, a young orphaned girl raised by abusive, opium-dealing foster parents. Rin lives in one of the poorer provinces of the Nikara Empire, which closely resembles 19th/20th century China. As the book begins, 14-year-old Rin faces the horrifying prospect of a forced marriage. Her only hope of escape is gaining entrance into the empire’s elite military school – the only school that does not require tuition payments. But to enroll, she must pass the rigorous entrance exam, better than the elites and hopefuls from around the empire, most of whom have been preparing for this exam all their lives.

On top of that, she must face the racism and classism of those around her, endure the rigors of her education, and attempt to master a long-forgotten power that brings her into contact with the rage-filled Phoenix god. 

And then the war begins.

Rin is a complicated character.  We want to cheer her on and see her succeed.  She’s sympathetic, smart, and determined as hell. She’s also desperate for power, to overcome the powerlessness of her youth. The more suffering and horror she sees her fellow citizens endure, the more determined she is to gain that power and use it, no matter the cost. 

As the story continues, particularly in the subsequent books, it became harder and harder to like Rin. Her actions and feelings were understandable, but she also makes you want to reach through the pages and shake her or shout for her to stop and really think about what she’s doing. Plenty of other characters try. But Rin is marching along her own path.

Kuang does an excellent of bringing Chinese historical themes and events to The Poppy War.  There are ties to the opium wars, the Chinese/Japanese relations, and of course the rise of Mao Zedong.  Kuang’s parents immigrated to the United States from China and never spoke of life there.  Kuang eventually spent a year living in China and heard stories from her grandparents of their experiences. 


Be aware that there are numerous scenes of self-harm, drug use, torture, rape, war crimes, and more.  For the rest of this review, I’m going to refer to the atrocities committed by Japan against China at Nanjing during the 1930s and how that relates to the book, though without going into detail. There’s mention of suicide as well, so feel free to stop here if needed. 

Of course, using early 20th century Chinese history means there are some very, very dark chapters.  About halfway through The Poppy War, war breaks out. There is a very accurate depiction of the horrific atrocities committed by the Japanese army against the Chinese during the Nanjing Massacre (also known as the Rape of Nanking) in 1937, during the Pacific War/Second Sino-Japanese War/World War II.  If you’re not familiar with it, Iris Chang’s book The Rape of Nanking is a foundational account of the seemingly endless atrocities – mass murder, mass rape, torture. It’s an important book, but Chang does not hold back.  (She later died by suicide at the age of 36.  One article focuses on her work and its effects on her in a discussion about historians traumatized by their studies.

I’ve read bits and pieces of Chang’s book, I’ve seen some of the pictures from the time period, I’ve watched movies about the massacre.  When I was teaching, I made sure to include it in my lectures about World War II.  And to this day, I cannot read or think about it without starting to feel physically ill.  Which brings us to the question – should such things be included in a fantasy novel that also has a pantheon of gods to which humans can connect with meditation and opium?

As hard as it was for me to read that section, I think it’s important to include.  First, it is not done gratuitously or as torture-porn.  It fits with what we’ve learned so far in the book and it helps us understand (if not condone) where Rin goes from there.  Kuang cites her sources at the end of the book and gives her own scholarly and personal background.  She handles the whole thing well.  Second, I strongly believe that fiction is an important vehicle for learning about reality.  The inclusion of real-world historical events or current events, and especially those which do not get much or any coverage in school, can really open doors to learn more or at a minimum develop a sense of empathy and compassion for people.  The fact that Kuang includes a list of non-fiction reading about the Nanjing Massacre is very helpful in that regard. 

While Rin herself is only a witness to the aftermath of the atrocities, other characters endured the actual event. We learn more about it from them, and importantly, how it affects their lives going forward. Kuang also has us grapple with the question – in the face of such evilness, is any response going too far? Is justice even possible or only revenge? Should there be limits on that vengeance?

In the end, The Poppy War trilogyis a difficult but rewarding series of books. The magic/religion aspects are well done and still feel like this could be part of our own world (likely enhanced by all the close historical parallels).  But just like real history, nothing is ever clear cut or simple, including the purported heroes. That’s what makes it so compelling.

Find it here