No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, June 28, 2009

#46: Fathom -- Cherie Priest

I knew when I took you that you were evil. That's why I pulled you under the waters and held you against myself. That's why I saved you, because you were formless and void, and I thought I could bend you to join and assist me. I brought you in as a daughter, and as a companion to my son. I received and restored you knowing that you were made of bile and nails, so I suppose the fault is mine after all. I did not frighten you enough while I had the opportunity. (p. 304)

Cherie Priest's latest novel (the only other of her books I've read is Four and Twenty Blackbirds) is a dense, rich elemental tale that I think I'll need to read again to appreciate in full. It has something of the same feel as Tim Powers' On Stranger Tides: the fury of tropical storms, ancient horrors concealed beneath the sun and sand of Florida, pirates (pirates!), magic, the stifling lushness of the land and the blue waters that, for all their clarity, hide a great deal.

I think there are echoes and overtones of Shakespeare's The Tempest in here, though it's far from a direct remapping of that tale. Still: there are individuals (not quite people, not exactly human) who correspond to the four elements -- Earth, Water, Fire and (at a stretch) Air: a girl trapped in a form not her own, a water-witch, a Greek smith ...

And pirates! Specifically, José Gaspar -- a popular figure from Floridan folklore, the island Gasparilla named after him -- who turns out to've failed at the task appointed to him: for punishment, says Arahab, I removed from the face of the earth every trace that he'd ever lived. There remains neither note nor relic to confirm he ever breathed before I claimed him. (p. 56). Now Gaspar (one of the more likeable characters in the novel) has work to do, and a new companion: the young, modern and amoral Beatrice. Arahab the water-witch deems it time to wake a slumbering god: against her stands a creature with no name, and Beatrice's cousin Nia, and an insurance adjustor named Sam.

Fathom feels like being at sea: it's a novel full of movement, pursuit, violence and change. Some beautifully evocative scenes and some shocking volte-faces: Priest has the power to surprise and shock, to catch the reader in her characters' reactions.

It's a distinctively American fantasy, and a Southern Gothic fantasy, and though it's a world away from the Florida-set thrillers I also enjoy, the landscape is the same -- albeit lashed by huger waves and lit by a weirder light. I liked this a lot, though there were occasional phrases or paragraphs that made me want to edit ...

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