Epeolatry Book Review: Dark Woods, Deep Water by Jelena Dunato
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Title: Dark Woods, Deep Water
Author: Jelena Dunato
Publisher: Ghost Orchid Press
Release date: 19th September, 2023
Synopsis: In the depths of a remote forest, an enchanted castle preys on unwary travellers. The servants of the Goddess Morana sacrifice to their dark mistress every soul who crosses its threshold. One terrible night, three people who should never have met find themselves trapped there: a spoiled lady escaping an unwanted marriage, an aging warrior-prince on a deadly mission, and a resourceful rogue caught up in a botched heist. As their destinies entwine and the dawn approaches, the solution to the castle’s riddle becomes clear: if they want to escape, one of them must die.
A dark fantasy tale inspired by Slavic folklore, Dark Woods, Deep Water is the debut novel by Croatian author Jelena Dunato. Set in an intricately imagined world that staggers the line between fairytale and brutality, this novel will appeal to fans of Katherine Arden and Naomi Novik, as well as lovers of classic Gothic fiction.
Dark Woods, Deep Water is told through a variety of viewpoints in multiple time periods. The structure is complex, but Dunato’s style and ability to craft unique points of view save this novel from confusion. Each character’s story is rich and detailed, full of hope and heartbreak, leaving the reader longing to know more about them.
We begin with Ida, who pulls you in by letting you choose the backstory for her that you prefer—the “happy” one or the “sad” one. Only, it is a trick because both origins are tragic. Ida is a brave, resourceful woman. Forced to exist in a sexist culture, she does what she must to get by, even travelling with an abusive swindler or band of thieves.
Next is Telani, a man who would follow his lord and hero anywhere. He, like Ida, has learned to follow those more powerful than him in order to survive an unfriendly world. Last is Elisya, a naive girl who refuses to cave to convention and marry the old man her father selected for her.
Each of these characters and stories could have filled an entire novel of their own, yet the book does not feel over-full or rushed. I wanted to know more about their situations and their lives, but was also satisfied by the story. Some may find Elisya’s spoiled, selfish naivete grating, but I thought she was an accurate depiction of a young, teenage girl who had not been taught properly about her world by her neglectful father. It’s easy to see the error of her ways from outside the pages of the book.
Through their varied stories, these disparate characters are woven together to form a tight knot that cannot be unravelled until death is satisfied. A Slavic death goddess, Morana, has trapped them in a foreboding castle together. The circumstances surrounding their mutual prison come clear through the story and had me eagerly reading along trying to unravel the mystery of what would happen next.
I have almost no knowledge about Slavic folklore, so I cannot speak to the accuracy of this book. The author did an excellent job of informing the reader with the details they needed to understand regarding what was happening, but at no time did it feel like an exposition dump.
The time-hopping structure and triple points of view kept the story moving and built on the mystery. I noted the time stamps on each character’s chapters and, knowing that they were destined to meet, I tracked the timeline. Telling the story this way also allowed me to piece together what happened to some of the side characters, particularly in Elisya’s story, and enriched the worldbuilding in ways that a single, linear narrative might not have.
A gothic fairy tale masterpiece, Dark Woods, Deep Water, will grip you in its talons and not let you go until the intense conclusion where death gets her due.
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Melody lives in Ontario, Canada and writes short, dark fiction. She has been published in several anthologies and online publications. In university, she studied Ancient Greek and Roman Studies and often infuses her work with elements of Greek mythology. She also loves reading, embroidery, and martial arts. You can follow her homepage at: https://www.blog.melodyemcintyre.com/