I really love fairy tale retellings, especially if they’re done well, so when I got a hold of Erin A. Craig’s debut novel, House of Salt and Sorrows, I was very excited. A dark, moody, Gothic retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, the book pulled me right in and had me gripped from the very first page with its lyrical writing. I loved the macabre twists too that reminded me a lot of Edgar Allan Poe, and how the story kept you guessing what would happen next. So after enjoying this book so much, I was especially eager to get a hold of Small Favors, and even more ecstatic when I managed to secure an eARC on NetGalley! I was definitely not expecting to get a hold of such an anticipated, in-demand book. (I will try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible since many people haven’t read the book yet.)
Overall, the vibe of this book to me was actually quite different from Craig’s first novel. I have heard it described as having a “prairiecore” vibe and honestly, that really does describe it so well. Think alternative universe Oregon Trail or Laura Ingalls Wilder and you have this book’s aesthetic. This isn’t the only area where Small Favors departs from HOSAS; the book also moves at a slower pace and instead of being thrown into the midst of the plot where the danger has already personally effected the main characters, there is more time spent building up the potential horrors. The basis of the story, Rumpelstiltskin, and the implications of these elements that Craig pulls from this tale, are also not perceivable until later in the novel instead of being apparent at the beginning, as in Craig’s debut. This gives the reader more time to hunt for clues as to the inspiration for the narrative, and also to introduce more surprises, since it doesn’t strictly adhere to the tale. Small Favors is more a loose interpretation of Rumpelstiltskin rather than a straight retelling, which I admit I was initially expecting, so don’t go into it with those expectations; it’s better to keep the fact that it’s a retelling in the back of your mind rather than the forefront.
I liked a lot how Craig took touches from the pioneer period this is supposed to draw from and bent them into interesting shapes to suit the story, i.e. making the names of the characters in some instances seem almost fantasyesque like “Ellerie” and “Merry” and pairing them with more traditional names like “Sadie” and “Samuel.” I also felt like it was clear the author had done research on how people during the pioneer era lived and this informed her story’s background, making it feel more authentic. I felt Ellerie was a relatable character much in the same way that Annaleigh was from HOSAS. The female characters in this book I think were written the strongest and were the most enjoyable to read about, whereas I found myself frequently annoyed by many of the male characters, (except for Whitaker), and particularly Samuel’s behavior throughout the story. This was intentional though I believe on the author’s part. Interestingly, I was expecting a different outcome for Samuel’s story than what actually happened, and I was actually rather pleased it subverted what I was expecting since I thought it gave the ending a feminist twist. The entire ending was actually not something I would have seen coming from page one so that in itself was a surprise.
This book has a different vibe of horror too as compared to HOSAS. Instead of ghostly hauntings that hint at a mixture of the supernatural and the fantastic, this feels more raw and gritty, and thus more in line with the wilder, rougher, environment the characters find themselves in, as opposed to the spooky, dreaminess of HOSAS. There is tension running through the majority of the novel, but at moments when it explodes, it definitely feels jarring and scary, so if you want to be kept guessing you definitely will be. The beekeeping interest of Ellerie’s was a unique touch too and it reminded me a bit of Robin McKinley’s novel Chalice. Whitaker was also a very mysterious character, making him an unconventional male lead. I wasn’t really sure what would role he’d end up playing in the overall plot, for good or for evil, and only near the end is the reader shown his true significance. I would definitely be interested in reading a short story or novella on Whitaker before he came to Amity Falls if Craig were ever to publish one.
It’s clear that Small Favors definitely had a lot of ingredients that went into it, and what resulted was an interesting and original mix. Even someone who isn’t into retellings I think could pick up this book without knowing the references and still enjoy it since it isn’t essential to understand the plot. I can’t wait to read what Erin A. Craig writes next and I’ll be eagerly awaiting her next release. Thank you again to NetGalley for providing my complimentary digital copy!
(For anyone interested, my signed copy and bookmark I ordered from Schuler Books based out of Grand Rapids Michigan.)