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Book Review: The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones

Book Review: The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones

Many readers will be well aware of the ideas and themes that are found in Emily Lloyd-Jones’ The Drowned Woods– there’s magic, faeries, a heist plot, a warmongering ruler to destabilise and so much more to enjoy over the course of this fantasy adventure. What most will be less aware of, however – and what sets this book apart – is that it draws from Welsh history and mythology to craft its story, and by the end of The Drowned Woods there can be no denying that it’s definitely a rich and entertaining well to draw from.

Set during an undetermined time in history, when the kingdoms of Wales were rife with magic and conflict, The Drowned Woods centres on 18-year-old Mererid, the last living water diviner, who has spent years running from the prince who bound her into his service when she was a child. Haunted by the deaths she inadvertently caused after following the prince’s orders, Mererid wants nothing more than to disappear and find freedom with a small home she can call her own, but then her old handler – the prince’s spymaster and the closest thing to a father that Mer has ever known – tracks her down with a proposition, asking her to use her powers to help him bring down the prince and weaken his power.

Together they compile a crew to help them destroy the magical well that keeps the prince’s lands safe, setting out with a group of unlikely allies including a scholar of the tylwyth teg, the lady of thieves, a fae-cursed young man and a corgi that may or may not be a spy for the Otherfolk. With a plan in place and a mission set, Mer may finally be able to find the freedom and the peace that she has longed for all her life. But as their journey progresses, Mer realises that nothing and no one is as it seems, and that the consequences of their heist may be much bigger than Mer ever expected. 

It was that day the girl learned that water could save a life — or take it. It was a lesson she wouldn’t forget.”

It took just two chapters for the story being set up in The Drowned Woods to intrigue me, but it was the third that had me hooked. With that third chapter, what began as a compelling premise with interesting characters and an entrancing world became a rich and layered narrative with the arrival of another point of view. The introduction of Fane, a man who gave himself in service to the Otherfolk as a young boy, elevated this novel from standard ‘chosen one with a mission’ fare and turned it into something altogether much deeper, with the idea that there are other forces at play here never far from the page.

With both Mer and Fane telling this story, readers are given the insights of two characters with vastly different experiences of life and magic in this world. Lloyd-Jones is able to build up a true picture of the world of Gwaelod with all of its power, mysticisms and social structures, deepening our understanding as new histories are revealed, new magic is unearthed and alliances are formed. It helps too that both characters are so well developed, and so grounded too. Mer, in particular, is a wonderful lead and she quickly proves herself to be strong, stubborn and resilient, as well as a fighter who unapologetically does whatever she needs to survive – but none of that takes away from her inherent good nature and kind heart too. She’s self-aware and knowingly acknowledges her own contrariness, but all combined it makes for the kind of character development that results in some genuinely well-earned emotion as the novel reaches its dramatic peak.

Fane, meanwhile, is a fascinating character in and of himself, with a heartbreaking backstory and an arc that was once driven by revenge but which has since been tempered as he’s grown up to realise that magic and vengeance can each have their own consequences. Now forced to live with a curse he couldn’t possibly have understood when he agreed to it, Fane is quiet and unassuming yet remains a potentially deadly ally, even though his determination to limit the effects of his curse has led to him living a hard and lonely life too. Throughout the journey, Mer and Fane’s relationship grows from reluctant helpers to friends to hints of something more, but it’s built on a solid grounding of mutual understanding and respect that is woven together effortlessly alongside the plot, which makes their journeys – both together and apart – all the more heartening to read about.

Despite the promise of a pacy plot, The Drowned Woods most excels when it explores the interpersonal relationships at play, particularly so given Mer’s complicated history with both the spymaster Renfrew and the lady of thieves Ifanna. There’s a solid cast of supporting characters here – and a special shout out must be given to Trefor the corgi too! – but this is something that readers come to appreciate all the more during the novel’s slower middle chapters, where even quick-paced action and face-offs against magical creatures can’t quite shake the impression that the author is just moving different chess pieces into play ready for later action.

Even so, the intriguing beginning and stand-out ending more than make up for its slower moments, and ultimately this is a twisty magical adventure story that’s packed with surprises, drama and emotion. Even better, however, is that it also manages to introduce a new dimension to the fairy tales that fantasy readers have read so many times before, ensuring that The Drowned Woods is remembered as a beautiful, intricate fantasy and a unique and compelling story.


The Drowned Woods is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 16 August 2022

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