book club guide – The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw

image of the salt grows heavy book cover - a drawing in black and white of a stylized plague doctor and a mermaid holding a heart, on a red background

Here’s a question for you: Why is salt so damn heavy? I once bought several containers of salt for a hobby I thought I would take up. I put them all in a duffel and headed for the airport to fly home with my ridiculous salt haul. I can safely confirm that yes, the salt grows heavy. I could barely lift the thing! I got sent to oversized baggage so they could scan and handle my bag, and the scan set off a security alarm, as if I was transporting some kind of impenetrable substance that required inspection. It was just my salt, folks. Heavy, heavy salt.

Title: The Salt Grows Heavy

Author: Cassandra Khaw

Date first published: 2 May 2023

ISBN harmed in the making of this Book Club offering: 9781250905512 (it doesn’t matter if you use a different version, this just makes it clearer if/when pages/sections don’t perfectly align from whatever version you may be using) Published by Tor Nightfire.

Book jacket blurb:

From USA Today bestselling author Cassandra Khaw comes a razor sharp and bewitching fairy tale of discovering the darkness in the world, and the darkness within oneself.

You may think you know how the fairy tale goes: a mermaid comes to shore and weds the prince. But what the fables forget is that mermaids have teeth. And now, her daughters have devoured the kingdom and burned it to ashes.

On the run, the mermaid is joined by a mysterious plague doctor with a darkness of their own. Deep in the eerie, snow-crusted forest, the pair stumble upon a village of ageless children who thirst for blood, and the three “saints” who control them.

The mermaid and her doctor must embrace the cruelest parts of their true natures if they hope to survive.

WHO are the main characters? The story is told to us in the first person, by a protagonist whose name we never learn, because apparently it is a name unpronounceable by human mouths. Safe to say, the main character is a ‘she’ who is also a mermaid. The secondary main character is the plague doctor, again whose name we do not learn, nor can we infer their gender. Not a mermaid, and also questionable whether they could truly be called human either.

WHAT happens (no spoilers)? So there’s this mermaid? And she meets a prince? You get it … she leaves the sea and her family behind to live in the kingdom with her prince, there’s a bit of conflict, some unfortunate events occur, and well. Seriously, the book blurb above is going to have to get you primed for this one, because every single thing that happens in this story is consequential, and it feels like the spoilers start on page one. What can I really tell you? Ok – despite what Disney put in the Little Mermaid animated movie, you had to know that fairy tales all originally started out with a healthy dose of darkness and gore. Right? I mean, you probably wouldn’t be here if you weren’t familiar with the history of the old cautionary tales that wound their way into the earliest versions of our modern fairy tales. In this imagining of the mermaid yarn, literally everything is dark including the bits about love. At one point, the mermaid tells the plague doctor about her earlier life under the sea; there were no singing lobsters.

WHEN does the story take place? That is a tough one to answer. For one thing, there is a plague doctor. They come complete with the freaky-beaky mask of the plague doctors we know from the time of the bubonic plague in Renaissance Europe. There are references to old-timey things like vellum, hovels (I’m sure they were lovely), princes and scattered kingdoms. With zero references to electricity, automobiles, or modern accoutrements, I’m going to guess that the story is set in the 17th century.

WHERE is the story set? Not specified, however there are hints. The plague doctor, the setting being a taiga wilderness, and imported items from China would lead this horror fanatic to believe the story is set somewhere between Europe and the Orient, likely in northern Russia.

WHY SHOULD YOU READ THIS BOOK? Because you simply must. The writing feels luxurious while at the same time it describes such hard and sparse circumstances. Not an inch is wasted on the approximately 100 pages that feel like a full length novel by the time you’ve reached the end. There is so much darkness, blood and guts, anger, evil, and magic, and when it’s all mashed together the effect is one of being transported to a place where mermaids really might exist, and you better hope you don’t encounter a hangry one while you’re out in the woods scrabbling for berries and mushrooms.

FOOD AND WINE PAIRINGS for this book club selection:

  • Fish & Chips with salt and vinegar
  • Unicorn Frappuccino


  • Russian caviar (too salty)
  • Red wine

Now we come to the part where spoilers are sure to be waiting… it is strongly recommended that you read the book before you read the following conversation guide for your book club below!

The First Night – pages 1-32

  • Right away, we meet the main character who turns out to be a mermaid, her pal the plague doctor, and we learn about the mermaid’s daughters who are apparently into eating people so much that they pretty much ate up everyone in their father’s kingdom. Kids, right! We also learn that the offspring of mermaids can take different forms, depending on who fathers them – angel daddies get feathered mermaid babies, hurricane fathers lead to storm and wind spirit children. What other mermaid combinations can you imagine?
  • The mermaid and the plague doctor set off together on a hike to who-knows-where through the taiga, where it’s winter but apparently mermaids don’t feel the cold like people do. What sort of environment does the word “taiga” evoke for you? Is it the dark woods of so many classic fairytales, or do you picture something else?
  • A group of boys bursts out onto the scene, conducting a brutal sport that ends with a death. From the deceased child, the boys cut out something they call a “bezoar” to take with them so he will be good as new. What in the holy hell is a bezoar? Is it a vital organ? Do we all have one? Anyone? Thoughts?
  • Throughout the book there are asides that appear to be the opinions of our mermaid narrator. In the First Night, she ponders myths as being filled with lies, the power of names (such as her own, which isn’t shared with us plebs reading her story), the importance of the hunt to the story, and human longing for simplicity. Spend a little time discussing these ideas and what you believe to be their significance.
  • There is another aside (on page 21) asserting that fairy tales, over time, have been beaten to the point of being meaningless. Do you know which fairy tales the mermaid is referring to in this part?
  • In the popular animated film, you may be familiar with the sacrifice the Little Mermaid had to make (giving up her voice) so she could trade that flipper of hers for some legs and go hook up with the handsome prince, right? Since we’ve been warned by the narrator that this story is not a myth filled with lies, then we must assume that the cartoon glossed over the gruesome truth – that the mermaid had her magic stolen, her tongue and teeth ripped out, and was basically held captive, like a prize, to bear the prince some wee’uns. Joke’s on him though! Can you think of any other fairy tales that originally contained some horrific details that got washed out over the generations? What about some modern interpretations, where the cutesy stories have been turned into something that would give the kiddies nightmares instead of sweet dreams?

The Second Night – pages 33-62

  • The surgeons, as they are called, say that heaven can only be bridged by agony. Why the eff do the gatekeepers to heaven want everyone to suffer so much? Like, not just in the book – I mean, why is pain and suffering for the sake of going up to meet god in some remote afterlife such a big part of the history of certain religions?
  • It becomes apparent at some point that the mermaid and the plague doc have been acquainted for quite a long time. Years, in fact. But the mermaid didn’t know their name. Do you think maybe she was given the name when they first met, but because she was all traumatized from her sweet prince’s shit and abuse that it just slipped her mind and then later she was too embarrassed to ask? Has that ever happened to you? Don’t lie… tell the club who you know but don’t know their name and refuse to ask it now because it would be awkward!
  • The mermaid grows quite fond of the plague doc, frequently referring to them as “my plague doctor” until, I guess the good doc pisses her off and she immediately reverts to “the” plague doctor. Seriously, our mermaid seems to be pragmatic almost to a fault. Is she a psychopath?
  • The plague doctor asserts on page 46 that “martyrs are more powerful than gods”. Now that I think about it, I feel like I have also heard that line in a movie lately… huh. Anyway, I need to stop listening to those noises above and focus: Is that statement true?

The Third Night – pages 63-92

  • Another aside, telling us that when we’ve forgotten all else, appearance is everything. What do you suppose this means?
  • The mermaid played a trick on one of the surgeons, and he’s big mad. He calls our protagonists “mutt” and “mongrel” as insults. Insults! I’m sorry, mutts and mongrels are very good boys. This isn’t a question for the club to debate, I just wanted to make it clear.
  • When the surgeons are exposed as frauds for all the children of that weirdo village to see plainly, why don’t they see the truth?
  • The mermaid takes exception to being called by such a human, marketable label. What labels would drive you up the wall if someone tried to pin them on you?
  • Just when you think the mermaid is done for, she turns the tables and eats up the surgeon that was going to end her. Seems fair, yeah? In eating her attacker, she is completely healed of all of her wounds. Is this a metaphor for something?
  • When she thinks they are lost to her, the mermaid despairs and wishes to follow the plague doctor down into eternity. Is that feeling relatable? Or is it pure fantasy, and no one would realistically be so destroyed over what may have only been infatuation?
  • The surgeons and their shitty kid followers try to dispose of their unwanted visitors (our heroes) once and for all, but it backfires on them. Literally. Did the mermaid get the power to toast them all from the fire itself, or was it from the plague doctor speaking her name? What did you think of how the story wound up at the end of the Third Night?

Epilogue – pages 93-97

  • Four hundred years is a fuck of a long time to figure your stuff out. The mermaid finally got what she wanted, and even though she was super old, it was good. What would you try to learn or accomplish if you had that much time to work on it?

after the acknowledgements bonus footage – pages 100-106

  • Here’s where we find out what a real piece of work that prince was. So much for romance! A disturbing amount of violence was perpetrated against our mermaid and her family, and that mofo sat there gloating about it, wearing her teeth that he’d ripped out of her mouth like a crown! As if that wasn’t bad enough, she had to suffer through premature and still birth of her babies, before finally the tide turned and revenge was served. I mean, the dude had it coming. Did you find the end-of-the-book section with the bit of backstory? Did it help your understanding of what led up to the opening of the First Night?
  • What does the title mean, now that you’ve read it, thought about it, talked about it… The Salt Grows Heavy? Salt is mentioned several times in the book, referring to appearance, texture, taste – more a psychological reference point for the narrator than a physical presence. What are you carrying that grows heavy?

That’s it, readers. Thank you for checking out this book club guide to The Salt Grows Heavy, and feel free to drop us a note or a comment if there is something you’d like to see on these pages. Also check out the blog for articles about this book, and others.

And they lived happily ever after. The End.

go ahead, whistle past the graveyard

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