Desert Isle Keeper
Salt Magic Skin Magic
This book. Oh my goodness. I was bewitched and captivated from the first page to the last, and I barely took any breaks in between. Magical. Romantic. Suspenseful. Mysterious. Sexy. It’s all of those things and a tremendously engaging story. It’s also Ms. Welch’s first full-length novel. Friends, Salt Magic Skin Magic will definitely find a place on my top ten list at the end of the year.
It’s October 1851, and Soren, Lord Thornby cannot escape his cage.
He’d written the word ‘leave’ on his skin in black ink. His hands trembled as he’d done it, and the ‘L’ had smeared against his cuff. But he could read it plainly enough.
Eighteen months earlier he was kidnapped from his Mayfair townhouse by his father, the ninth Marquess of Dalton (whom he’d barely seen for about twenty years), and taken to his father’s remote Yorkshire estate. Since his abduction, Soren has lost count of the number of times he’s tried and failed to leave Raskelf Hall; every attempt ends with something or someone compelling him to turn around and return.
He took a third step.
And stopped. Idiot! He’d left the lid off on the inkwell. . . .
… Something black was on the back of his hand. He rubbed at it, but it wouldn’t come off. It was writing, very smudged. A word written in ink.
…Back at the Hall. For the thousandth time. Back to put a lid in the inkwell. The very banality of the reasoning turned his blood to ice.
Desperate, isolated and worried he’s losing his grasp on reality, Thornby vows he’ll one day be free of his father’s clutches. Nearly in tears, he once again considers his father’s demand that he marry in exchange for his freedom, but dismisses it. There’s no guarantee his father won’t renege on his commitment and he’s terrified of trapping anyone else in this ghastly existence.
As he walks the perimeter of the estate he reflects on dinner the previous evening and the mysterious guest at the table. Strangers at the estate are rare, but John Blake, a wealthy industrialist and friend of Lady Dalton’s cousin, seemed unfazed by the tension at the table or his father’s aggressive questioning. When Blake suggested that he and Thornby had been classmates at Oxford, Thornby politely corrected him, but didn’t dwell on the mistake. Later, he spent the night tossing and turning, dreaming of the attractive Mr. Blake. Castigating himself for his distracted (erotic) thoughts, he’s lamenting all the things he’s lost since his abduction when he spots Mr. Blake lying on the grass up ahead.
“Good day, Mr. Blake.”
Blake got to his feet, face darkening. “So, you can see me. How clever.” He gave a sarcastic bow. “How did you manage that? Reveal charm?” His grim mouth twisted scornfully. “Well, here we are. Let’s stop playing games, shall we?”
The man then begins to berate him for bothering Lady Dalton. Thornby flees.
John Blake, a magician specializing in the inanimate (iron and glass, salt and sand) – common – magic, agreed to travel to Raskelf Hall at the behest of Lady Dalton’s cousin, who is worried about her. It seems the marchioness lives in fear of her stepson (Thornby), whose arrival at the estate has been the impetus for some strange happenings. When John arrives at the hall, he immediately senses the old and crumbling estate is saturated with old magic, and so are the inhabitants. Lord Dalton smells as if he’s been cursed, and John’s magical charms don’t seem to have any effect on Lord Thornby, who has some strange ‘otherness’ he can’t quite put his finger on. He’d easily deflected John’s Judas Voice at dinner (denying they were classmates at Oxford), and this morning, he’d looked straight through the invisibility conferred by John’s sand, eye and spancel charm. To be so impervious, the younger man must be a magician of great skill.
When Thornby finally confronts Blake, he appears bewildered and confused by John’s accusations, and denies he has any interest in Lady Dalton. He asks John to consider why he wouldn’t simply follow Lady Dalton off the estate on her travels, and complains he can’t leave the estate – and that he suspects mesmerism or magic is keeping him there. John is suspicious and forces him, trembling and gasping, to prove he can’t leave. When Thornby starts fighting him, frantically muttering ridiculous reasons he should return to the Hall, John grasps him drags him forward. He only stops when he belatedly spots bloody gashes opening on Thornby’s beautiful face.
John returns a nearly unconscious and bleeding Thornby to the Hall, puzzled by the latter’s inability to leave the estate. It’s clear that the Marquess is cursed, Thornby is innocent, and someone or something is menacing Lady Dalton.
That’s all I’m willing to tell you about the underlying conceit that sets up Salt Magic Skin Magic. From this point forward, John is determined to find out the secrets of Raskelf – and to help Thornby, to whom he finds himself irresistibly and sympathetically drawn. The story is marvelously clever, often unpredictable, and ingeniously original; and when the truth is finally revealed, I was completely – and delightedly, surprised. Although I had a vague idea where the narrative was going (and re-reading it I see the clues Ms. Welch sprinkles throughout), most readers will be caught off guard as well. I love that!
While the exposition and world-building are exceptionally clever, the relationship between Soren and John transforms this story from ordinary to extraordinary. It’s wonderful. Theirs is an imperfect match made in heaven, and I loved their interplay from start to finish. The attraction between them is immediate, their chemistry (to John’s chagrin) is off the charts, and eventually, each becomes exactly what the other needs – a quiet confidante, a trusted partner, a comfort in one’s darkest hours, and their fiercest champion. It’s a delicate and delightful evolution from near adversaries to trusted companions. One of the more humorous aspects of their relationship comes as the result of their difference in stations – initially, John resents “Lord Thornby,” and what he perceives as his supercilious and arrogant persona. John is a commoner – raised in gentle poverty, he elevates himself through his magical abilities and education – and he’s used to patronizing aristocrats. But Soren isn’t the man John thinks he is and luckily, he likes a bit of rough. Their role-playing, their passion for each other, their investigation… every interaction sparkles with wit, humor, heat and tenderness. Sigh.
Salt Magic Skin Magic is the kind of book you race through in order to discover just how it all ends, but it deserves to be savored and lingered over. Its many pleasures – the mystery at its heart, the relationship between John and Soren, the world-building – subtly and slowly reveal themselves, and reward the patient reader. Smart, spellbinding and romantic, Salt Magic Skin Magic is one of the best books of the year.