Tainted Waters, by Lucretia Stanhope

“Tainted Waters” is a dark fantasy novel full of gray morals, elves, witches, power politics and playful reversal of our notions of good and evil by dissociating them entirely from the light and the dark, from curses and even love. I really liked that it gave elf groups their own moral system around their life philosophy which is anything but human. It rang true, even if horrific in most parts.

The book centers around Alice, who finds herself led by her coven into a trap, set up to be killed by dark elves. But instead of eating her up, they decide to use her to lift a curse recently laid out on their swamp.

I truthfully had difficulty reading the first 30% of the novel. I found the setting up far too long (ok, I got it, Decker is bloodthirsty and rough, Alice is introverted and an innocent) and disturbing in the fact I couldn’t quite put an age on Alice. Because of the strong reference to Alice in Wonderland at the beginning, her naive behaviour, her strong desire to find a family in the conven she is just integrating, her lack of knowledge and training, I kept picturing her as a child no older than 11. And that has to be wrong, just because she is 5 foot 8, we can once read. 

I would have liked to know exactly how old she was. It would have eased my mind as the ordeal she goes through is frankly unpleasant and borderline. I also grew very tired of the reference to “bloody bits” as the dark elf leader always wants to chop her up to “bits” or obtain “bits” of hers. And for all this first section I wondered if I wasn’t reading a heavy handed work in the style of “Coraline”. I think it could have been cut down a lot.

But after that first 32%, the novel really picked up for me. Suddenly the camera pulls back from the “ordeal” and we start to see the bigger picture and what it all means. We get introduced to the world, to complex relationships between magical creature groups and the people involved in the trap. We start getting hints as to why Alice is being set up, what is at play and who is set to benefit and what the larger stakes are. And this, I liked. I was glad I persevered in my reading and that it took such a different direction. So much so that when I arrived at the end of the novel, and noticed we only got a version of the facts and there were still many dark spots, I realised I would now be interested in reading the next volume to see how it all further turns out for Alice after all.

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