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Book Review: A Curse of Salt by Sarah Street

Book Review: A Curse of Salt by Sarah Street

Sarah Street’s A Curse of Salt is, in the author’s own words, “a love story wrapped up in a love letter to the sea”. It’s a Beauty and the Beast retelling with a nautical Pirates of the Caribbean twist, weaving the classic fairytale themes of love, curses and sacrifice into a YA romantic fantasy story that’s full of magic, escapism and heart-fluttering love.

Ria Lucroy has always had an affinity with the sea. She feels the pull of the ocean but she’s come to fear it too. With the kingdom starving and bodies washing ashore, everyone knows who’s to blame. Stories of the Heartless King have swept across the continent. They call him a pirate, a monster, a god. But only one thing is for certain: nobody who crosses him lives to tell the tale. When mercenaries raid her father’s merchant ship, Ria’s family face a terrible ultimatum. The pirate crew will spare his life in exchange for one of his daughters. Refusing to give her beloved sister up, Ria hands herself over to the Heartless King.

Face-to-face with the fabled ruler and his raucous shipmates, Ria soon discovers that the stories of the monstrous monarch are only half true. He might be a pirate with blood on his hands and a mystical magic flowing through his veins, but he’s also a cursed man with a human name and the love of a crew who’d sacrifice their lives to defend him. The more time Ria spends with the king, the more she’s drawn to what’s under the cloak of darkness he hides behind. As their chemistry blooms into something more, she finds herself caught in an ancient web of secrets and sacrifices. But to break the curse, Ria will need to unravel the mystery of how the king came to lose his heart in the first place.

‘We’re all ruins, blackbird,’ he said softly. Firelight flickered against the line of his jaw, playing into the shadows of his hood. ‘We don’t get to choose the things that destroy us.’

A Curse of Salt is a gorgeously romantic high seas adventure filled with the joys of found family, the coming-of-age tenderness of love, and the torment of a centuries old curse. It’s a story of vengeful deities, fallen kings and fearless adventurers, with a bookish heroine who makes up for the king’s lack of heart with a stubborn yet compassionate nature that endears her to the pirates she winds up with. Street wears her inspirations firmly on her sleeve – amongst them the sea god from Sinbad, as well as the enemies-to-lovers dynamic between Elizabeth and Darcy in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice remake – and the story is all the better for it. It sparkles with chemistry and evokes the fairytale source material, with the added thrill of the whole story taking place aboard a magical ship with a gregarious rag-tag crew.

As with many standalone fantasy novels, the ostensive villain of the book – a renegade pirate called Bane who’s hell-bent on revenge – doesn’t have nearly enough page time. Ria spends much of the story stuck in the middle of a long-running pirate feud but when Bane does sporadically appear, he feels more of a caricature villain than a genuine threat. There might be a reason for that – given whoever put the curse on the king is the ultimate antagonist of the tale. But the problem with keeping villains at a distance – and having characters merely talk about how terrible they are – is that they don’t provoke much fear for readers. Bane is more Jack Sparrow than Blackbeard, which lessens the sense of danger he’s supposed to pose.

Yet A Curse of Salt, like Beauty and the Beast, is ultimately a story of inner beauty and the transformative power of love – and with that in mind, it delivers a perfect dose of pacey romantasy that’s easy to get swept away with. The king may be heartless by name but he’s still a heart-stealer of a character you root for every step of the breathless way. Combine him with curious, obstinate Ria, and the lively crew around them, and this becomes a book driven by its loveable characters as much as it’s fuelled by their loyalty too. If you enjoyed Brigid Kemmerer’s Cursebreaker series and are looking for another inventive YA retelling of the tale as old as time, Sarah Street’s debut should already be in your basket.


A Curse of Salt was published by Hodder Children’s Books on 25 May 2023

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