“I was a woman when it was convenient to blame me, and a girl when they wanted to use me.”
I don’t know what I was expecting from this story, but it absolutely swept me off my feet and surprised me in all the best ways. A Study in Drowning is a masterful blend of gothic fantasy, dark academia, folklore, mystery, light horror, and romance that will drown its readers in a whirlpool of emotions.
This is the story of Effy Sayre, a soft and anxious Architecture student who has always believed in fairy tales. Because how could she not, when she has been plagued by nightmare visions of the Fairy King for as long as she can remember? When a contest is announced to redesign the crumbling, decrepit manor of the late author of the Angharad, her all-time favourite story, Effy knows this is her calling.
Though, upon arriving at the estate, she bumps into a rival Literature student with his own secret agenda, and it quickly becomes clear that things are just so slightly off. Before too long, they find themselves entangled in an old and dangerous mystery, fighting off monsters both human and magical, or something altogether more disturbing in between the two. Reality and fiction quickly start to blend and the truths they discover might bring them all down under.
Now, as a character-driven reader, this slooooow-burn story was just a feast for my soul. I wouldn’t say that it’s ‘no plot, just vibes’, but I do think the plot kind of takes a backseat to let the characters and themes shine.
Effy is absolutely one of my new favourite young female protagonists and I thought her story was equally harrowing and empowering. She could so easily have been another one of those strong heroines that falls into the ‘not like other girls’ category, and yet she absolutely does not. Her strength is much more understated, coming all from her mental endurance and sharp wit, which I personally thought made her so interesting and compelling.
Her story is one of endurance and defiance, but in a much more subtle and quiet way than you might expect. The themes of sexism (in academia), mental illness, emotional and physical (sexual) abuse, guilt, self-doubt, and the silencing of women are explored so beautifully through Effy’s personal journey and I absolutely loved her growth by the end of the book. She starts out as a very unstable and unreliable narrator who has allowed herself to be silenced for so long, but the events in this story make her realise that she has the power to break her chains and finally take back control over her own narrative.
I also absolutely adored her dynamic with her rival, Preston, who quickly turns out to be a lot less prim and proper than he likes to pretend to be. Even though their unlikely alliance is struck with much reluctance and distrust at first, it doesn’t take long for them to discover that they are much more alike than they could ever have imagined. And yet, they don’t immediately start swooning over each other, which I found so refreshing for a YA fantasy novel.
Their romance is extremely slow-burn and chaste, and I really appreciated that Effy’s personal journey always remained the main focus of the story. Though, at the same time I also really liked seeing how Preston became her first sign of proof that not all men are predators. His blind trust and faith in her story was so touching to see and I loved how he helped her realise that her voice deserves to be heard. Give me more of these tender and supportive love interests, please!
Another great aspect of this story is the incredibly immersive Welsh-inspired world building. I especially loved the light horror elements with the dark and haunting depiction of the faerie lore in this story, which really increased the levels of tension and intrigue for me. This entire story is just dripping in atmosphere, and I absolutely loved that.
The only thing that broke my immersion a tiny bit was the inclusion of phones and cars, especially considering that the sensibilities of the characters felt more akin to what you’d expect of the Victorian Era instead of the mid-20th century.
However, the rest of the story was so incredibly captivating and immersive that I could very easily get past that little hiccup. From the very first page, Reid just sucked me into this dark and eerie story with their immaculate and soul-stirring prose.
And again, even though the plot/mystery is definitely not the main focus of the story here, I was really impressed by how every single thread of this story turned out to be interconnected in unexpected ways. Especially the way that Effy’s personal life ends up mirroring her all-time favourite story, the Angharad, was extremely fascinating to see. The power of stories, especially the stories we tell (about) ourselves, is such a strong and compelling theme here, which only made me love the book more.
Reid has crafted a beautifully haunting story that is simultaneously a punch to the gut and a balm to the soul. I highly recommend A Study in Drowning to anyone who likes the idea of a character-driven low fantasy with a lot of mystery, folklore, powerful social commentary, endearing characters, intoxicating prose, rich atmosphere, and a touch of innocent romance. This is how you write a good, mature, and powerful YA fantasy novel!
Thank you to NetGalley and Random House UK for providing me with an eARC in exhange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.