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Deep is the Fen

By Lili Wilkinson

Reviewed by Tehani Croft

Wilkinson returns with a new cast and adventure to the world of her CBCA finalist A Hunger of Thorns in this richly drawn exploration of magic and masculinity, but where AHOT dug into themes of resource exploitation, industrialisation, and female power, Deep is the Fen rarely dips beyond the surface story, following Merriweather Morgan through a dark plot to free her friends and herself from power hungry men and a series of bad decisions.
Merry grew up in the isolation of a small rural town, believing whole-heartedly that magic is bad and a witch killed her mother. Despite this harsh beginning, her life seems normal – she loves her gentle father, she does well in school, is enmeshed in her friendship with Teddy and Sol, and is anxious about life after Candlecott. She dreams of intensifying her friendship with Teddy into something more, but except for her obnoxious academic rival Caraway, her world is generally pleasant. Then Merry discovers that beneath that pleasant façade, a much darker, power-driven world exists, and she is thrust into it in a bid to save Teddy from that power, and himself. However, not everything is what it seems, and Merry finds her world view must change, or else she risks everything.
While Deep is the Fen works quite well as a generic young adult dark fantasy, I kept waiting for the thematic richness of the previous book to appear, which unfortunately did not eventuate. While AHOT’s strong message about patriarchal power in society was brilliantly presented through a female lens, Deep is the Fen suffers for its focus on the masculine, and Merry barely felt like she had any agency in her own story. This could have been an effective thematic device, but the character’s tendency to wilful ignorance lessened any impact it may have aimed for. Despite her purported intelligence, Merry is annoying and naïve, making one poor decision after another, even in the face of new information and the actions of others that meant she should have known better.
The book is very long for the actual story being told, and drags in the middle section. It is more frustrating for that given how layered and intense its predecessor was, while Deep is the Fen is shallow and trope-ish, from the (multiple) love triangles to the generic “bad boy” and his evil corporate daddy. All that said, the worldbuilding continues to be fascinating, and while I was frustrated by the character and story, it is a popular style with the #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt crowd, so will no doubt find its audience.
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Allen & Unwin 2024
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