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

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Fathom -- Cherie Priest

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in Summer 2010.

Fathom, something of a departure from Cherie Priest's earlier works (though not from her Southern Gothic roots) has something of the flavour of Tim Powers' On Stranger Tides. It melds furious tropical storms, the earth-quaking dreams of ancient gods, the stifling lushness of the forest and the sense of something ominous lurking beneath the calm surface of the sea. There are ghosts, witches, pirates and a shark-mouthed ingenue; there are elements of Greek myth, alchemy, urban legend and Shakespeare's Tempest.

Nia (short for Apollonia) is visiting her cousin Beatrice when she witnesses a brutal murder. Fleeing the scene, she plunges into the sea -- only to be dragged beneath the waves, along with Beatrice, by something ancient and evil.

But Nia is spared, in a sense: washed up like driftwood, she finds herself with plenty of time to reflect. Meanwhile, life on the little island of Anna Maria goes on without her, until the arrival of Sam, a harmless and likeable insurance adjustor, sparks transformation, change and a desperate race against the water-witch whose ambition is to waken a slumbering god.

While not a feminist novel in any meaningful sense, Fathom is full of strong, dangerous female characters. The men are less effectual, though somewhat more sympathetic. José Gaspar -- generally believed to be mere legend, puffed up by local tourist boards -- is portrayed as a former pirate who failed to discharge an errand and was punished for it: "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) That's the vengeance of an angry goddess bound by her promise not to harm him; instead, she hits Gaspar where it hurts, in his reputation.

Fathom is a curiously timeless novel: it's set some time in the twentieth century, but it's hard to be more precise. There are Coke cans and cars, but most people on Anna Maria still get around on horseback; Nia wonders whether it's acceptable for a woman to wear trousers and bob her hair; Beatrice smokes 'to look smooth'.

Fathom is also rather unevenly paced, with long slow passages followed by frantic chases and abrupt reversals. The final few chapters, in particular, feel rushed and somehow unfinished, though perhaps that's more a product of Nia's detached point of view. On the other hand, that very detachment lulls the reader into a sense of complacency that's shattered by casual violence and character death.

There's something hollow at the heart of Fathom: perhaps it's the sense that we share with Nia, of moving -- or being guided -- through a world with rules and relationships that are never made clear. Perhaps it's the weight of reference and allusion that makes the novel top-heavy, so freighted with images and characters and ideas that it founders in confusion. Perhaps it's just the way the novel seems to simply stop, rather than finish: there's a lack of closure. Still, I'd recommend this. Priest's prose is robust, poetic, precise: she's adept at evoking atmosphere, and her flavour of horror is unique.

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