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 the castle’s threshold. One terrible night, three people who should never have met find themselves trapped there: a spoiled lady escaping an unwanted marriage, an ageing 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 the debut novel of Jelena Dunato, an excellent example of what could be called Slavic folk horror, with some touches of Gothic Horror, published by Ghost Orchid Press. With a rather unconventional narrative style, Dunato tells a story inspired by Slavic mythology, following three characters whose fates will meet one night on an enchanted castle which preys on the unaware travellers.
Talking about the main characters, the first of them will be Ida, a trickster that after being traded by her mentor to a group of robbers, will end on this castle helping them to steal to the castle's owner, being unaware of the real nature of it. After this, we meet Elysia, a young and naive girl, whose bad decisions taken because of her inexperience outside of her father's domains, will end with her marrying to the son of the castle's owner. And finally, we have Telani, secretary to prince Amrion, who is on a mission to retrieve a boy by the king's orders; in the middle of a snowstorm, they seek shelter in this castle.
Each one of those characters has its own POV, with Dunato making an excellent job of giving each one a distinctive voice and characteristics; while some of their choices might be frustrating (especially with Elysia), they are justified by their past.
In the first half of this book, Dunato slowly introduces us to these characters, while creating a highly immersive world, full of details that allow us to grasp those Slavic inspirations. There's a certain aura of mystery around these characters, which goes in crescendo until Elysia ends marrying the Gospodar of that castle; you can guess there's something building behind the scenes.
And that's where the second half of this book is used to introduce a big change in the mood, passing from being a book which was closer to folk fantasy to a darker book, which absolutely nails the gothic horror atmosphere. Instead of an enormous world where our characters are travelling, we are in an oppressive castle, where the cultists of Morana are trying to finish with them. The pace is quite frenetic, quite fitting for the danger our characters are experiencing.
Dark Woods, Deep Water is a highly immersive novel, set in an imaginative world whose Slavic influences are marvelously introduced. If you like folk inspired horror, and are looking for a different kind of book, give this one a try!
Jelena Dunato is an art historian, curator, speculative fiction writer and lover of all things ancient. She grew up in Croatia on a steady diet of adventure novels and then wandered the world for a decade, building a career in the arts.
Jelena’s stories have been published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, The Dark, Future SF and Mermaids Monthly, among others. She is a member of SFWA and Codex.
Jelena lives on an island in the Adriatic with her husband, daughter and cat.