I have about a billion books in progress on my reading list. It’s kind of cool because it means I am reading a lot more than I used to, but it also means I finish pretty slowly. But if I don’t finish, I don’t get to write reviews! BUMMER.
I knew pretty early on that I WANTED to review this one, though, so I’ve been chomping at the bit to finish it. It became my commute book, and I read it on my half hour to and from work (my roommate drives us in). And last night, I finally finished.
A while back, I mentioned I was invited to be a part of a Book Launch Party. It was my first one, and I was tickled to have been included. As part of the event, I was given this free copy of Sarah Cushaway’s debut novel, SALT IN THE WATER (Lesser Dark: Book 1).
How I Found This Little Gem
Sarah is a Traverse City author. Whenever possible, I like to be able to help out my peers. We support each other when we can, through NaNoWriMo and beyond. So when she gave me her book, I was thrilled. I haven’t met a lot of TC authors who write fantasy (which is pretty much all I will read). However, it was a little slanty-like from my usual fare. I warned her of this, as I have found it increasingly difficult to enjoy fantasy lately. It all starts to look the same after a while, and I quickly get bored and put the book down.
Sarah assured me that this would be a little different. SALT IN THE WATER is a “Weird Western,” a subgenre that takes elements from Westerns and combines them with another. This book is basically a fantasy novel set in a fictional border town. I was intrigued enough to give it a shot, but Western isn’t really my thing, either, and I went into the book skeptical. What I love about fantasy is how far removed it is from the modern world. I don’t want to be anywhere near it.
But, for friends and fellow TC writers, I’ll try my damndest. Represent.
The blurb for this book is as follows:
There are a thousand ways to die in the desert—desperate outlaws, deadly predators, murderous elements, and betrayal. . .
Kaitar Besh, a veteran scout as legendary for his cynicism as his skills, is ordered to brave the deadly Shy’war-Anquai desert one last time. Escorting Leigh Enderi—a greenhorn Enforcer with a reputation as shady as his own—he soon realizes the ghosts of his past have come to haunt more than his nightmares.
When the mission breaks down in the wake of bitter hatred and mistrust, even Kaitar’s fabled skills may not be enough to bring them home again. Stranded in the red wasteland without contact, food, or water, they uncover a betrayal that could bring all they hold dear crumbling to the dust. . . and tear down the wall of lies surrounding them.
Basically, the plot follows a small group sent to investigate the disappearance of a fellow Enforcer, and while they are tracking him in the desert, conflict happens. Meanwhile, all around them is a multilayered battle over territory, and power and authority is shifting hands. Of course, when you’re isolated out in the desert and cut off from communications, it’s kind of hard to keep your finger on the pulse of politics, so nasty surprises abound.
It reminded me quite a bit of Mad Max. Water is important. Whoever has it is king. There are guns and sand rovers. And somewhere in the desert there are sand pirates who will kill you and take all of your stuff, and maybe eat you. Not to mention the desert is dangerous anyway.
What I Liked
Sarah was right. This is a bit of a departure from typical fantasy fare. Actually, it has a little more science fiction in it than I was expecting.
There are multiple races, and they generally hate each other. There are the usual humans and races of sentient humanoids collectively referred to as Enetics (although to be fair, one of the Enetic races is basically velociraptors called Threk, which I am totally fine with). There’s a universal mistrust of Enetics that’s strikingly relevant to the modern age, although there are some that are able to look past that. The border town of Dogton keeps quite a few Enetics employed, for which the city’s leader is given a lot of shit.
I quite enjoyed the interactions between the races. There’s a deep hatred between Leigh’s people and Kaitar’s people, the Sulari and Shyiine, respectively, which causes a lot of strife as they travel together, despite the fact that neither of them are particularly fond of their own people. Both of them have some deep issues and neither of them ever want to talk about it until they want to fight about it.
I love the Shyiine. The two that appear in the story, Kaitar and Senqua, are both entertainingly pissy. Kaitar is like a harassed school chaperone. He’s out there like, “Don’t touch anything, don’t lick anything, don’t wander off” but no one wants to listen to him. He’s used to being on his own, so having to keep two other people from getting themselves killed is exasperating and amuses me. Senqua is a greenhorn scout paired up with a total drunk. She’s a constantly boiling over fury because she wants to learn and basically has to figure it all out on her own. I get the feeling that at some point her mentor was better to her, but now she’s disgusted. It has created this interesting dynamic where she won’t let him drink himself to death and is oddly protective, even though she is constantly bitching, like she can’t help herself.
I love irritable characters. And SALT IN THE WATER has tons of them. I was also quite fond of Zres, but I’ll leave him for you to discover.
It’s often difficult when writing such a large cast of characters to keep them all separate, different, and interesting, but this book absolutely nails that. There are plenty of unique character-character interactions. A book is supposed to make you feel like there was a story before this and there will be a story after it, and maybe there is more story running in the background. It’s supposed to be real, like you’ve landed smack dab in the middle of everyone’s personal dramas. This did not fail to deliver on that.
What I Didn’t Like
Surprisingly little. Usually I’ll have some kind of complaint about writing style and believability of character development, maybe worldbuilding, but nah.
If anything, I’m left wanting to know more about Kaitar’s past. There are little bits and pieces in flashbacks and nightmares but not the full picture. There keep being hints at some kind of dark, horrible secret from his fighting pit days. I get the feeling it’s all in the second book (which has yet to be released), but I was impatient for it now. Same with Leigh’s backstory. There’s a little of it.
And I really, really want to know who Verand was, really. In this book he’s sort of a shadow of his former self but he was apparently a pretty big fucking deal.
Oh, and maybe it was the copy I received or something in formatting translation to my MOBI reader on my phone, but there were quite a few missing periods. I’m smart enough to figure out when a sentence ends. It wasn’t even distracting enough to slow me down, but worth mentioning I suppose.
I’m definitely looking forward to book two. It’s called GHOSTS IN THE GLASS.
I have no idea when it’s released, but I follow Sarah on Twitter and I’ll be looking out for it.
SALT IN THE WATER was a great detour from my usual book fodder. I kept snorting and laughing out loud at some of the arguments the characters had and I couldn’t stop telling my roommate about what was going on. I’m trying to get him to read it now.
This book is free. You should totally pick it up. And then review it, because that’s what you do to support the artists that you like.
S.K. Balk lives in the frozen wasteland of Northern Michigan. She is the author of the dystopian medical sci-fi THE BLOOD OF NERYS (also available in print) and short fantasy A SHINY FOR TRICK (forever free for your entertainment!).
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