Title: The Descent of the Drowned
Author: Ana Lal Din
Genre: Fantasy/Young Adult
Version: ARC – ebook
Page Count: 373
Publisher: White Tigress Press
Add To-Read on: GoodReads, StoryGraph
Notable Notables: Diverse cast, Pre-Islamic Arabian mythology
Recommended Readers: Anyone looking for a slow-building yet gripping read with two main characters who stand on their own
CAWPILE Rating: 9.14
Star Rating: ★★★★★
Thank you, to NetGalley and the publisher, for offering this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
A dark, compelling read, The Descent of the Drowned by Ana Lal Din immensely impressed me with its rich cultural descriptions, complicated characters, and slow-building plot. So much so that I already own a copy for myself.
Inspired by pre-Islamic Arabian mythology and culture, The Descent of the Drowned is the start of a YA fantasy trilogy that definitely leans hard on the older side of the scale due to its many heavy themes, which are addressed headfirst and unflinchingly. I recently read a book that equally horrified and enraged me at how gratuitous its violence and sexual themes were to be directed at a younger audience than truly appropriate. Therefore, my guard was up when I started this book, which tackles topics regarding sacred prostitution, rape, sexual assault, torture, self harm, suicide ideation, and many others.
Turns out I needn’t have bothered to be so wary. Each of these issues—and others—are treated with the gravity, horror, and fury they rightfully deserve. Readers have time to sit with these issues along with the characters and experience how these issues affect and inform the characters and their world, which is lovingly detailed with rich descriptions juxtaposed against the ugliness of human trafficking, transphobia, rape culture, caste systems, ethnic cleansing, and other cruelties. While reading, nothing ever felt glossed over or overdone, yet I also never felt hopelessly mired down by darkness. That’s because Lal Din managed to walk a delicate line between bringing awareness to these issues while also crafting a sincerely enjoyable story with characters I couldn’t help but be drawn to and root for.
What also helped this balancing act immensely was the book’s slow-paced nature. Rather than meandering along without purpose, The Descent of the Drowned is a rare book that allows its characters to breathe, its world to be laid out to you in a way that may seem daunting at first but which you have plenty of time to dip your feet in and explore.
While the content is vastly different, this book reminded me of how The Bear and the Nightingale was written, how it allowed you to get to know side characters and how their personal struggles and prejudices also related to the main characters, each of them deeply influenced and affected by their world. This quality of writing and its dark content often made me question its status as a YA book as it feels far more suited to Adult Fantasy to me, not to mention the price of the hardcover and paperback editions are far more inline with adult literature prices. But I’ll not argue the point further.
I’ve decided to skip over giving my usual synopsis because there’s far more value in simply reading the book yourself. Instead, I want to talk about our two main, point-of-view characters, Roma and Leviathan.
A sacred prostitute, Roma is an outstanding protagonist, reckoning with both her past, off-page rape and her unknown destiny as something dark and vengeful. She wants to rail against the injustices of the world as much as she wants to believe that there has to be a truth behind it, a purpose to it somewhere. She is a character who has been forced to become a survivor yet is still young enough to unconsciously cling to whatever innocence and naïveté she has left. She wants to protect others while still looking out for herself because who else is going to?
Roma is the kind of feminist protagonist I like reading, one who doesn’t have to be taught her worth because she intrinsically knows how bullshit the world is and her lot in it. She doesn’t need to preach to others or be preached to about the life she has been given being born a low-caste woman in a society designed to use and harm her. She has lived it from birth and knows this is wrong, her words, thoughts, and reactions to all that is done to her and others being as justified as they are venomous. I love her so much, and my heart continuously hurt for her.
Then, there’s Leviathan. Oh, my word, I didn’t know authors could still write a male character who claims to be monstrous and actually demonstrate them being that way. I thought this art form was dead. Not here. Leviathan is a bastard-born solider to the Firawn, the country’s immortal tyrant. Despite Levi’s casteless status and blood ties to the land’s persecuted clans, he “benefits” socially by being the Firawn’s sole heir. As a result, he’s been trained for years to stifle his humanity and emotions, becoming a ruthless killer in the process.
And he truly is. He has killed before and kills many times throughout the book without remorse to achieve his ends, though not without being harmed in some ways himself. This is a character who is trying to cling to his humanity and right past wrongs but by doing all the wrong things. Simply put, I love this character. I love that his compassion still exists but is buried by callousness. I love that he views his sins as unforgivable but is still trying to find the correct path to do right by those who have suffered, some even by his own hand. It’s about the internal struggle.
And yeah, he’s sexy and badass and my problematic fav, what of it? Thank you so much, Lal Din, for writing him this way because there’s so much more you can sink your teeth into when a character isn’t wholly good or wholly bad. Levi is at once despicable and completely understandable; he is ugly and beautiful and terrible and jagged in so many ways alongside Roma, all because that’s how life has shaped them both. I both love and hate the awful circumstances that cause Levi and Roma to be intertwined and the pain such fateful collisions cause them. But it’s also so stirring, so delicious. I wouldn’t call what happens between them in this book a romance, but the groundwork has been laid, the beautiful, too-often neglected groundwork. If a romance is due to happen, then it is meant to be the slowest of slowburns, no doubt being gradually shaped across the entire trilogy rather than rushed into happening in this first book, and that is exactly how it should be done. Especially given both of their own circumstances. Lal Din said, “Instalove sucks,” and is instead writing out all three forms of a sonata with these two.
That being said, each character has their own storyline happening independently of the other, oftentimes carrying the narrative on their own until the POV changes again. The parts of the book where they do meet and interact is like watching destiny unfold, gradual, inevitable, and often tragic. I already miss the both of them dearly.
I also love Malev, Junho, and Ashar very much and hope I learn even more about them in the sequel. Each of them stands out on the page in different ways, regardless if a chapter is in Roma or Levi’s POV, and I honestly could use so many more interactions with them.
While I know I’ve praised the descriptive writing in this book before, I need to do so now in a different way. The descriptions alone of fashion, food, and setting are visual feasts, intimately embedded throughout the novel in some of the most persistent, inspired-by-real-culture world-building I’ve ever seen. You know how you pick up a book that’s “inspired by” something, but you really can’t tell how? Sure, there might be a vibe there, but you’re not seeing any of the nuance? You will not have that problem here, and to help you, there’s even a glossary in the back of the book, and we love to see it.
I do admit that some of the fantasy elements like the magic system and the pantheon are a bit hazy juxtaposed to a world with guns and cigarette lighters, but part of that is due to my own ignorance. I was learning a lot while reading, which is a beautiful thing to admit. I nonetheless enjoyed everything I read, from the magical, storytelling sand to the Sleeping Forest to the Ghaib. It didn’t take much to adjust my brain to a sort-of Pan’s Labyrinth sense of viewing the world-building, where instead of separating the fantastical world elements from its war-torn reality, I just envisioned them as being one in the same.
And yes, The Descent of the Drowned absolutely works for that stunning snake cover. I cannot wait for the sequel to this and to see what awaits me with its cover and intriguing contents. I cannot wait to learn more about everything this book introduced. If Lal Din’s debut novel was this good, then I tremble at what will come with her sophomore release.