by Keri Lake
About a week ago, I wrote a post devoted to Gothic Romance because I think it’s a very underrated and undersaturated subgenre right now, and I’d like to see that change. After drafting it, I bought nearly every title on the list, and now I plan to work my way through them.
With it’s Jane Eyre vibes and overwhelmingly positive reviews, Master of Salt & Bones jumped to the top of my TBR, and after finishing it, I have to say that this is everything I ever wanted from a modern Gothic Romance. It’s dark, atmospheric, macabre, and twisted in all the right ways.
To really classify as a Gothic Romance, a book has to have a mystery, sometimes supernatural, always tinged with a little bit of horror. The backdrop tends to be some sort of sprawling, maze-like mansion or a castle. The female leads are usually trying to balance what they want with what society expects of them, while the male leads live almost entirely outside of society. All of these themes hold true in this book.
Isadora, or Izzy, our female lead, is from a small fishing village on an island off the Massachusetts coast, much like Martha’s Vineyard, and thanks to her lineage, she’s something of a pariah. Lord, did I relate to her.
Some backstory: I’m originally from Cape Cod. My family has fished the rough seas surrounding it since we landed there with the Mayflower. We’re a blood of the earth kind of people, with saltwater flowing through our veins.
Very rarely do I read books set where I am from, because they never get it right. Keri Lake got it right. She managed to perfectly depict the small-town mentality that still exists there. The apathy for the throngs of summer tourists, paired with the begrudging need for them to prop up what would otherwise be a dying economy. She captured the gossip, too, and the fact that hatred for some families goes back generations, and there’s nothing the current one can do to break free from the curse of their forefathers.
I understand this well. My family is made up entirely of fishermen, and criminals. There’s mention of us in books going back as far as the late 1600s, and the quote from that one goes something like, “There are two _____ families on Cape Cod. One is spelled with an E, and they are all horse thieves. The ones with an I are even worse than that.”
I’m from the I family. Not much has changed since that book was published. Nearly every one of my male relatives still living has been incarcerated. So, yeah, to say that I’m impressed with how well this author captured what it was like for me growing up in that place is an understatement.
But this isn’t about me, it’s about the book. If Izzy is a pariah, then Lucian, the male lead, is nothing short of the specter that haunts the entire island. He’s the ghost story kids tell to scare each other. People cringe at the very mention of his name. The driveway to his home, a castle said to be built on the bones of his family’s enemies, is lined with crosses to ward against his evil.
One of the things I loved about this book is that Lucian’s reputation is well-earned. It’s not one of those romances where you meet the male lead and find out he doesn’t deserve the black mark against him and is secretly a stand-up guy. He’s not, and you should be prepared for that going into this.
When I said at the beginning of this review that this book is dark, I meant it. There are some themes here a lot of readers will struggle with. TWs for sexual assault, abuse, violence, suicide, institutionalization, breath play, knife play, animal cruelty, torture, murder, hallucinations, panic attacks, severe mental health issues, and probably several others I just can’t remember right now.
On a more positive note, everything that happens between Lucian and Izzy is consensual. He’s not the typical abusive asshole you find in a lot of dark romances. Consent matters to him, and while he’s openly enamored with the fantasy of forcing Izzy, it’s only the fantasy he’s attracted to, and he wouldn’t pursue it without her agreement – actual rape is horrifying to him.
So while I loved this book, I can’t gushingly recommend it like I would with any other five-star read. But if you might be okay with those triggers, then my god do you have one hell of a book to look forward to.
There are several overlapping plots in this, each a mystery unto itself, but the main one is Lucian. That’s right, this author managed to make the male lead into such an enigma that I spent 3/4 of this voraciously consuming his backstory and still I want more. What drives someone with such dark desires? How did he become the person that he is today? Is he really as mad as everyone says? And if he is, how the hell can he and Izzy ever be happy together? Especially when Izzy might not be the innocent 19-year-old I first believed her to be.
I don’t want to really get into any specifics with this because there are so many potential spoilers that I might veer too close to, and really, this is a book that should be read instead of read about.
I do have one regret about Izzy’s character, and it’s that she didn’t have as much progression as I would have liked to see. Actually, she had a lot of growth overall. What I’m really trying to say is that she didn’t embrace part of herself as much as I hoped she would. Because if she had: dark phoenix rising. My god, did want. So maybe that says more about me than anything else, lol.
I also had one or two issues toward the end, and I almost dropped the rating to four stars instead of five because of it. I just couldn’t do that, though, because overall, I fucking loved this book, and I know I’ll end up re-reading it whenever I’m in the mood for something deliciously dark. It will stay with me for weeks to come, and that, more than anything else, speaks volumes about how much it meant to me.