Fathom, by Cherie Priest, Tor Books, 2008
If Sam squinted, he could make out a shape at the top of the steeple; but it was difficult to identify. He was just concluding that it was the strangest rendering of the Virgin Mary he’d ever seen when the front door creaked open and a tall, gray-haired man emerged.
Fathom (p 148)
Summer’s coming, and it’s time for those summertime reads. You know the ones—the big splashy adventure books, perfect for a few hours out on the deck, in the folding chair on the camping trip, or on a towel by the pool or at the beach.
May I recommend Fathom, by Cherie Priest? Oh, wait, perhaps Fathom is not the perfect book for the beach or the pool, since the antagonist is a powerful water elemental determined to destroy life as we know it on this planet. Arahab, the water witch, can manifest wherever there is standing or running water, so maybe this isn’t the perfect beach or poolside book.
The point of inspiration for Priest is the Bok Singing Tower, an actual Florida landmark in Lake Wales, set atop the state’s one, 243-foot mountain. She sets the book in the 1930s, and follows two female cousins. Aside from the bloodline, and missing fathers, the two young women have little in common. Nia comes from poverty, working with her mother and grandmother in the family orange grove. Bernice, wealthy and spoiled, grew up in New York and has only recently returned to Anna Maria Island in southern Florida.
The women come to Arahab’s attention in a dramatic manner, and she offers them power and immortality. One accepts and one rejects the elder god’s offer, setting the stage for the inevitable confrontation.
Arahab intends to waken the Leviathan, another elder god who slumbers. She needs a human agent to do this. She recreates Bernice as a companion and partner for her earlier minion, a sixteenth century pirate named Gaspar. Once before, Gaspar tried and failed to rouse the Leviathan. When they are paired, Arahab sends them on a mission, which at first seems to be merely to wreak havoc at a Tampa street festival, the Gasparilla, a mocking homage to the pirate himself.
Nia, meanwhile, is enveloped in rock for four years. During this time she is conscious, in some way, and counseled by a strange entity that might—or might not—have humanity’s interests at heart. We have met this demi-deity before, at the beginning of the book, when he persuades a wealthy eccentric named Edward to build a carillon bell-tower in the center of the state.
Sam, a fire inspector and regular guy, gets dragged into the action. He runs afoul of the island’s cult of Arahab worshippers, and is forced to go on the run with Nia, who has emerged from her stone cocoon.
The relationships of the elder gods are lightly sketched rather than fully developed, (or maybe I just missed them). I can’t tell if Leviathan is the father of the Arahab and the others, the first-born, or just Arahab’s favorite sibling. I also can’t tell if he’s a water god (Leviathan, yes, surely?) or an earth god. The gods seem drawn from equal parts Greek mythology and H.P. Lovecraft. The demigod who mentors Nia clearly has a history with Arahab, and it’s not a good one. They have issues.
In a similar way, the relationship between Gaspar and Bernice is done in short-hand rather than fleshed out. Gaspar thinks that he loves her because she is “wicked and wild” but there’s no emotional spark between the two, so it’s odd that he agrees to her mad scheme near the end. This is not serious flaw in the book though, because the crucial relationship is between Bernice and Nia.
Once we get past a few clunky plot points at the beginning, the book takes off. It feels like we’re riding on Sam’s shoulder as he explores the history of the strange statue he’s found, meets the duplicitous pastor Henry, and makes a run for the ferry landing, statue in tow, in an abandoned fire truck.
Priest’s prose is crisp, descriptive when it needs to be without being prettied up with curlicues and furbelows. The dialogue and rhythm of speech conjures up the south. Her use of detail paints the landscape perfectly, like here: “. . .a puddle pooled beneath it, and sparrows took the opportunity to bathe themselves, flipping their wings and splashing happily. A tin tub filled with water held stalks of sugarcane, submerged by a screen to keep the flies off them. Two little boys poked at the screen.”(p 147) When the action moves to the mysterious tower, Priest creates a landscape filled with beauty, strangeness and ghosts.
While the place is exquisitely limned, the time isn’t. The book is set in the 1930s yet the impact of the Great Depression is not addressed. Clothing, slang, street scenes—nothing stands out as uniquely 1930s. She uses President Coolidge’s dedication of the Bok Tower to timestamp the book but the period does not infuse the story the way Priest’s “clockwork century” infuses Boneshaker.
I have a final quibble. Arahab is a water witch. Several human characters complain about the oppressive humidity, yet Arahab cannot command the water in the air to coalesce and help her manifest. Why not? This is not a criticism, just a question.
Anyway, I recommend Fathom. Just put it down at least an hour before you go into the water.