Blood and Salt
“one of the most original and immersive young adult horror novels of the decade.”
Near the end of Kim Liggett’s debut novel Blood and Salt, the 17-year-old protagonist Ash Larkin talks about fixing a place in her memory—“I wanted to take in every scent, every detail . . .” This is a fine coda for a remarkably sensual young adult horror tale that relies throughout on smell, sight, sound, touch, taste. Blood and Salt is also complex in plotting and epic in scope, spanning 500 years and playing off real historical figures in a canny way.
Ash and her twin brother Rhys live in New York City with their single mother, Nina; their father went missing before they were even born. Nina makes a living preparing perfume for wealthy clients, a skill she acquired in Quivira, her birthplace in Kansas where she was raised as part of a strange cult. Mother periodically drives a bone needle into Ash’s skin, scarring her with protective symbols. When Nina vanishes, leaving gold bars and a note for the twins saying that she’s returned to Quivira, Ash decides they have to go after her.
Rhys and Ash travel cross-country only to find an endless field of corn where Quivira should be. As they explore the corn, Ash encounters Dane, a boy she has an intense and immediate attraction to. Dane disappears into the corn, leaving the twins to push on along.
Eventually they break out of the field to find Quivira, a small community stuck in the past. They don’t find Nina, but stories their mother told them are confirmed: stories of the founding of Quivira in 1541 by Katya Larkin, an alchemist who possessed the secret of immortality. Katya was pursued to Quivira by the conquistador Coronado, who stole immortality before being banished from Quivira, now protected by spells that Katya learned from a native American sorceress named Aiyana.
In a few days, the summer solstice will take place, and the citizens of Quivira will participate in a yearly ritual in which the undying Katya seeks “vessels” for herself and her lover Alonso, murdered by Coronado in 1541. The twins believe that their mother and father, who may be hidden somewhere in Quivira, will “walk the corn” as the vessels.
Along the way, the twins find an isolated community with its own practices and little knowledge of the outside world. There’s a blustery leader, Spencer, who knows more than he lets on. There’s Beth, a young woman with visionary powers who develops a relationship with Rhys. There’s Theresa, who, like Ash, receives visions of the past…and has been driven mad by them. And of course there’s Dane, who will become more than simply an unlikely ally to Ash.
If that all sounds far more complicated than the average young adult novel (or, for that matter, the average horror novel) it is. Indeed, if Blood and Salt has a flaw, it would be the plot, which occasionally calls for flipping back a few pages to check an earlier fact. But complaining about a book with too much on its mind almost feels unnecessarily churlish. Let’s just say instead that Blood and Salt is smart and involving. Ash is a wonderful lead character—smart, funny, athletic, daring, compassionate, and going through changes that she can only comprehend once she grasps the full meaning of her family’s long, dark history.
Blood and Salt’s romance and horror (it does include eerie deaths, dreadful visions, gruesome deaths and resurrections, monsters, black magic, and living skeletons) has garnered it a strong early buzz, but its extraordinary descriptions of smell throughout are what may also impress critics. Here’s Ash’s first encounter with Dane, as she makes her way through an auto junkyard on the edge of the corn: “I took in a deep breath. The smell of rust, rubber, and oil filled my lungs, but there was something deeper underneath, something infinitely more appealing. Dark fertile earth, sandalwood, fresh rain, strawberries, a hint of tang.” With the suspicious Spencer, on the other hand, Ash gets “a whiff of parchment and eucalyptus, but there was something foul underneath.”
Blood and Salt does pave the way for a sequel (or series), and readers who crave more of Ash’s exotic, sometimes nightmarish story and Liggett’s lush, beautifully-crafted prose will undoubtedly be lining up for whatever comes next . . . but Blood and Salt also stands on its own as one of the most original and immersive young adult horror novels of the decade.