A Fairy King, a rising sea, and predatory men make up the fetid water in A Study in Drowning by Ava Reid. It’s not something you would want to swim in, but it is a story you will want to read. Reid blends real life with a foreboding fairytale to showcase the difficulties women face when navigating the world of men.
Effy’s in-depth knowledge and incredibly high scores were not enough to sway the literature college into admitting its first female student. Instead, she settled for architecture, and she is less than pleased. Effy keeps her head down during the day to evade her classmates’ stares and takes sleeping pills at night to keep visions of the Fairy King at bay. She treads water and barely stays afloat in school until she discovers the estate of her favorite author, Emrys Myrddin, is hosting a competition to design a home for the late author’s family. Finally, she can put these meaningless classes to use, and Effy’s design easily catches the Myrddin family’s attention. But when Effy travels to Emry’s rural hometown, she is disappointed to find a decrypt, damp home being reclaimed by the sea. The inhabitants of the manor are even stranger, and Effy finds herself trapped by the strange magic of Myrddin and his famous story, Angharad. The longer Effy stays, the more the sea rises, and it uncovers more horrible truths with it.
The title, A Study in Drowning, is both a play on words and an accurate description of the book’s primary setting. Effy arrives at Hiraeth Manor to find it slowly falling into the sea, and while Myrddin’s study has yet to succumb to its watery grave, it is only a matter of time. The title also describes the state of Effy’s life which is as scary and foreboding as being on a boat slowly sinking into dark water. Effy is quite literally drowning in the patriarchal society that constantly belittles and uses her. She is stifled by sexism and treated like an object, and it’s all she can do to keep her head above water and survive. The title is clever, but Reid also does an incredible job using water imagery throughout the book. Metaphorically, Effy is constantly treading water and weathering each wave that laps over her head, while she is also physically soaked to the bone from the decrepit manor that is home to both people and the sea.
It is a compliment when I say that I was uncomfortable reading this book because Reid so accurately captures many horrors that women are subjected to by men. While not explicitly described, Reid alludes to instances of sexual harassment and assault, but what was more prevalent were microaggressions and awkward situations. My skin would crawl when a man’s heavy hand landed on Effy’s shoulder or when someone made an inappropriate and subtly sexual comment. What really broke my heart was watching Effy awkwardly try to diffuse these situations. More often than not, Effy reverted to being polite in an attempt to evade incurring their wrath, but her tendency to be nice was also because she had been made to believe it was her fault that men acted this way. This was a result of all the times Effy had raised concerns, whether it be her advisor or the Fairy King, and she was told it was all in her head or that she interpreted the situation wrong. A major theme in this book revolves around how little women are believed and how easily our experiences are discounted or played down by the people around us or by our own internal monologue. This occurs throughout the book as Effy believes herself to be “crazy” and constantly blames herself. She never trusts what’s happening around her and softens bad and predatory behavior to placate the people around her.
The worldbuilding is the shallowest part of the book, which doesn’t do much to take away from the story but it could have benefitted from a little more depth. There is a lot of geographical animosity and wariness happening in the background that serves to create distrust among the characters. Effy’s country, Llyr, is in an ongoing war with Argant. There are also regional biases in Llyr between its northern cities and the rural, Bottom Hundred region in the south. It’s a little unclear, but literature is practically worshipped in Llyr, and the country appoints beloved authors as “Sleepers.” The Sleepers are revered as important historical figures, and the inhabitants of the Bottom Hundred believe the Sleepers have magic that keeps the sea levels from rising and destroying their region. I don’t understand why the Sleepers have magic or how it has anything to do with the Bottom Hundred when we’re told repeatedly that it is an uneducated region incapable of producing intellectual authors. It also appears some of the hatred between Llyr and Argant has something to do with the countries trying to claim authors or literature as their own. The vague worldbuilding provides a shaky foundation of distrust between characters because it’s not clear why or where the animosity stems from. Overall it doesn’t detract from the story, but it does produce awkward interactions when characters come at each other with long-held beliefs we don’t understand.
I was uncomfortable while wading through Effy’s life and Myrffin’s terrible house of secrets in A Study in Drowning. Ava Reid did an incredible job pulling you down into the story so you could feel the panic and water rise with each page. The fantastical elements are understated and the worldbuilding is murky, but I enjoyed this tale of a young woman finding her voice.
Rating: A Study in Drowning – 7.0/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.