The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones (book review)
GENRE: YA Fantasy LENGTH: 343 pages PLOT
A hunted woman, a cursed boy, a spy, a princess of thieves, and others embark on a heist to destroy a magical well that is the source of an evil prince's powers.
The novel has a number of 'main' characters who join together in the heist. The primary two are Mer and Fane. Mer is the last living water diviner (think waterbending from Avatar: The Last Airbender) who is an escaped prisoner of a cruel prince. She's incredibly powerful and puts her own self first as she refuses to be imprisoned again. Fane is an ironfetch, meaning that he can sense iron and he works for the tylwyth teg (Welsh fairies) in exchange for their magic. He has a strong sense of justice.
Besides Mer and Fane there is Renfrew, a former spymaster and Mer's mentor. There's also Mer's ex-lover who is the heir to a thief's guild (Ifanna), a grumpy scholar (Emrick), and a solider (Gryf).
There's such a weird mix of characters here because some, like Mer, Fane, Renfrew, and Ifanna (who I could honestly read a whole book exclusively about) are morally grey with well developed backstories. Then we have characters like Emrick, who contributes nothing, and Gryf, who is devoid of any personality. Mer and Ifanna's complicated history made them a much more compelling set of love interests as opposed to Mer and Fane whose romance fell entirely flat.
If I was Lloyd-Jones I would have axed Emrick's character and given Gryf more page time to express who he is better. I would have had Mer and Fane become friends who help each other heal and grow, and had Mer and Ifanna reconcile (or at least hint towards such a thing occurring in the future).
The novel is told from the third person perspectives of Mer and Fane. It draws from Welsh mythology. This book is a standalone though it takes place within the same universe as Lloyd-Jones' previous novel, The Bone Houses.
This novel suffers from my main complaint with *some* standalone fantasies and that is it's simply not long enough. I saw quite a few reviews mention they thought the plot dragged. This was wild to me because I felt the exact opposite. There were quite a few 'jump cuts' where we never really got to see how the characters get from point A to point B. We do get flashbacks to the characters' pasts, and this helped to better understand them in the present. HOWEVER, there were times when reading this that it almost felt like I was reading a sequel because there was so much backstory that was crammed in. Things also came too easily to the characters. I wanted to see them struggle more so their triumphs were more earned.
I do want to take a moment to mention some things I liked about the novel here. I adore morally grey characters and Mer, Ifanna, and Renfrew in particular were well done. I am unfamiliar with Welsh mythology but getting to see some of the creatures from Welsh legends was super cool. I definitely want to learn more about them now. Also, the magic was super cool. Even though I really liked Mer's water powers I was especially surprised by Fane's iron sense and how in handy it came. On the surface it doesn't sound as impressive as what Mer can do, but on page it's much more impressive. I really like the heist plot as well, I just think the execution was a tad lacking.
I love Lloyd-Jones. I think she's a sorely underrated YA fantasy author. This was her first YA fantasy release in a couple of years so the anticipation for this release was so high for me. It physically pains me to write such an overwhelming negative review of this book which I preordered and wanted to rave about it. She's a talented writer so I'm genuinely confused about how this one diverged so much from what I have come to expect from her. I'll undoubtedly still pick up her next book, but in the meantime I might need to go back and read The Hearts We Stole as a palate cleanser.
FINAL RATING: 3.25⭐️