Cherie Priest is an author better known for Southern Gothic fiction and, despite its Florida locale, Fathom is a slight deviation from that area. Fathom certainly makes use of Priest’s familiarity with that genre but places more emphasis on the fantastic elements and overarching plot than on the setting and atmosphere of the story. In essence Priest trades elements of horror for elements of the fantastic to craft a story more in vein with Charles de Lint than say Edgar Allan Poe. Read on for more…
Our story opens with Nia beings sent to stay with her city-bred cousin Bernice’s family down in southern Florida. As it turns out Bernice is a bit disturbed; to put it mildly. After, Bernice murders her step-father she goes after Nia. The altercation ends up in the water and Bernice is taken by the water witch Arahab. While Nia escapes the water witch she is irrevocably transformed by an earth spirit into a sort of living statue. Events move fairly quickly after that point with Nia, a fire inspector named Sam, and the Earth Spirit attempt to stop the servants of Arahab from awakening an ancient deity and destroying the world.
Some of the themes of Fathom reminded me a bit of Lovecraft: ancienty sleeping diety, cold otherworldly ancient creatures that have existed before humanity manipulating events to suit their needs; it is a distant reminder as Priest is far more forthcoming in her descipritions of ancient entities than Lovecraft ever was, but apt none-the-less. Ragardless, it does lend a sense of “the wierd” to the story. I would argue that Priest’s juxtaposition of ancient beings from multiple mythological backgrounds against the backdrop of mundane human existance is a perfect example of Freud’s “uncanny.”
Thematically speaking Prest touches on issues of surprising gravitas particularly towards the endgame. Family relationships play a huge role in the novel from Nia to Bernice, to Bernice and her family, to Arahab and her creations, to revlations regarding Mothfeaster and its heritage. Indeed, family ties, love and love spurned (not the romantic kind), provide the major impetus for the majority of the characters and events that take place in the novel.
What is most fascinating in the majority of Priest’s writing here is how little importance humanity plays in the events that transpire. Sam, though useful in the early sections of the novel, serves more of a tether from Nia to her human past. Later in the novel, as events move from human conflicts against cultists, or navigating an urban environment, Sam becomes more of a liability than anything else. His ultimate fate is a true testament to humanity’s fate when meddling in the affairs of creatures more powerful than them.
Though Priest stays laudably focused on the novel’s main plot and pauses only rarely for exposition she manages to convey a sense of very real, concrete cosmology to her world. It has rules, though they are never stated outright or, if they are, are stated within the context of plot and never as a sidebar. It leads to a sort of unobtrusive world building that sacrifices very little depth in favor maintaining the story’s pace.
Borrowing from multiple mythologies, both real and imagined, Priest has crafted a dark and mysterious world. Themes of family, loneliness, and fragility of human existance tether the otherworldly elements of the novel to recognizable territory. Both of the above are held together by a taught narrative that moves at a steady, but never frenetic, pace. Though I am not familiar with the rest of Priest’s work Fathom (her fifth novel) is a work that any veteran author should make any author, veteran or otherwise, proud. Highly recommanded for fans of fantasy, horror or literary fiction in general.