Autumn and dark academia books are a match made in heaven, and Ava Reid’s A Study in Drowning is the gothic, dark academia fantasy novel that you have been waiting for. This novel is a dark and chilling blend of mystery, fantasy and romance, set within a world that’s built on superstition and folklore so effectively that it will leave you questioning what’s real and what’s myth. With feminist themes, a slow burn rivals-to-lovers romance and the world of academia at its heart, A Study in Drowning is a beautifully-written, compelling and unsettling story that will draw you in deeper with every page.
The novel follows Effy Sayre, an architecture student who is haunted by visions of the Fairy King. Since childhood, Effy has had no choice but to believe in these fairytales, but she finds solace in the pages of Angharad by Emrys Myrddin, an epic novel about a girl who falls in love with the Fairy King, and then destroys him. Effy is struggling through her first term at Llyr’s prestigious architecture college, but when she learns that Myrddin’s family has announced a new contest to redesign the late author’s house, Effy is certain that this project is meant for her.
When she arrives at Hiraeth Manor, however, Effy quickly realises that the task is impossible. The old, crumbling house on the edge of a cliff is falling apart, being battered by the raging sea and worsening storms with every day that passes, and Effy can’t shake the sense that there are darker forces at play here. Worse still, she isn’t the only student residing at the manor, and literature scholar Preston Héloury is determined to prove that her favourite author is a fraud who didn’t write the book that means so much to her.
Before long, the young students form a reluctant partnership to investigate Myrddin’s legacy, piecing together the fractured pieces of his life and career through letters, diary entries, books and more, and quickly learn that things are not to be trusted. As both mortal and magical forces begin to conspire against then, Effy and Preston’s search for the truth could just be the thing that brings them both to ruin.
There was something wrong here, in Hiraeth, in perhaps all of the Bottom Hundred. Old magic and wicked – or worse, ambivalent – gods.”
Gothic mysteries like A Study in Drowning can often be hard to get right, not least because you need to keep your characters in the dark and your readers questioning everything, while still delivering a narrative worth investing in. Fortunately, A Study in Drowning is a gothic mystery worth getting lost in. Through Effy’s eyes, Reid’s confluence of the magical and mundane here becomes completely believable, with readers never quite sure if any supernatural occurrences are actually happening, or just a figment of Effy’s imagination. It makes for an engrossing, unsettling read, and it quickly becomes clear how well Reid has mastered her storytelling craft too as the author is very careful about what information to share and when, adding to the mystique and building up our picture of each character layer by meticulously crafted layer.
At any given moment, there are a lot of narrative threads working together to create a layered plot to unravel, and at the centre of it all is Effy, an endearing character who has been through a lot and slowly learns to find the strength in her own voice as the novel unfolds. Alongside its main driving narrative, A Study in Drowning also explores so many other deep and difficult themes, including institutional sexism, men who abuse their positions of power, and all the ways in which women have been silenced, belittled and cast aside to better fit the narratives that these powerful men want to portray. It’s a novel about stories and authorship, about authors and readers, and about storytelling in general, as well as showing how stories can become a part of your personal and national identity, and what it means if that sense of self is shattered.
It feels like a lot and, when coupled with the push and pull of the rivals-to-lovers romance between Effy and Preston, A Study in Drowning is definitely in danger of covering too much. Yet everything about this novel comes together seamlessly to create this beautiful, haunting story. It is a little slow to get started, and there is an element of predictability to some of the reveals too. But every bit of this novel – from the narrative and characters to the world’s own mythology, superstitions and the role that academia plays – comes together so well that it feels like a powerful, thought-provoking and spellbinding read that’s difficult to put down again once you’re swept away by this beautiful, dark and dangerous world.
Reid has already proven her skills as an author in her adult fantasy novels The Wolf and the Woodsman and Juniper & Thorn, and this novel takes her talents effortlessly into the YA fantasy sphere too. A Study in Drowning is a dark academia book that reads like a cross between Mexican Gothic and Divine Rivals and it’s ultimately a wonderfully written, tense and moving novel that offers its audience an endlessly readable mix of historical fiction, gothic mystery and fantasy romance that will draw you in again and again.
A Study In Drowning was published by Del Rey on 19 September 2023