Fathom: Not the best beach book

fantasy book reviews Cherie Priest Fathomfantasy book reviews Cherie Priest FathomFathom by Cherie Priest

Fathom is an entertaining horror novel once it gets going. Cherie Priest spends the first 100 pages of Fathom setting a scene, complete with pages upon pages of infodumps. One character will tell another character a story about a third character, for instance, or a character will have a prolonged recollection of a scene from his past. In addition, the time in which the novel is set does not become apparent until the last few chapters of the novel. A reader could easily conclude that the novel is set in the present day until the last 50 pages or so, when suddenly that appears not to be so, and all that has gone before must be reassessed. The Cherie Priest of Fathom does not seem to be the assured writer who turned out the superior Four and Twenty Blackbirds.

Priest starts her story (after a short initial chapter that has no meaning until much later in the book; really a prologue) with two strongly contrasting characters, Nia and Bernice. We learn quickly that the latter young woman is a spoiled rich kid with pronounced overtones of extreme violence, while the former is a poor kid up from the farm who finds herself in over her head, both literally and figuratively, very quickly. It isn’t long before Bernice is in the arms of Arahab, a water witch, and Nia is turned into stone, a decorative figure in the garden of the home that was to have been her residence for a summer’s visit.

Arahab has plans for which she needs Bernice and Jose Gaspar, a sea pirate from eighteenth-century Spain. She wants to waken the long-sleeping Leviathan, which she hopes will destroy the modern human world and bring the old gods back to their prominence. Bernice and Gaspar are set loose in the world in order for Bernice to savor her new-found immortality and the free rein she has been given to inflict as much damage on humans as she likes. That is not their only purpose on land, however, for they have a task to accomplish to aid Arahab in her quest. This requires a trip to see Mr. Poppo, a metalworker with pronounced similarities to the god Vulcan, in Ybor City, Florida.

Another elemental has plans for Nia; she will not spend the rest of her life as sentient stone. For a time she is an object of worship to those who apparently think that she is a representation of Arahab — and who think, as well, that Arahab is interested in their worship. With the help of Sam, an insurance fire investigator, the nameless elemental “hatches” Nia to a new life in order that she might stop Arahab.

Once all the characters are gathered in Ybor City, this novel really begins to cook. Suddenly the story, which had been composed of exposition and conversation with random bursts of action, becomes all action — and dramatic, high-tension action at that. This is the point at which the underpinnings of the novel start to make sense, and a devoted reader will now find it hard to set this novel aside without finishing it.

One gets the impression that Fathom could have benefited from a final rewrite. Priest has what it takes to write original, exciting horror, as the last half of this novel demonstrates. Moving the characters into place, though, poses a difficulty for Priest here. It will be interesting to read her next book to see whether she can pull together her considerable skills for a truly consistent, frightening story.

~Terry Weyna

fantasy book reviews Cherie Priest FathomIf 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.

Summer’s here, 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, Arahab, is a powerful water witch determined to destroy life as we know it and who can manifest wherever there is standing or running water.

Priest’s point of inspiration 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 two 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 a 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 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 demi-god 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 shorthand 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 a 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, Fathom 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.” 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.

~Marin Deeds

Fathom — (2008) Publisher: Before God created the earth as we know it, the planet was home to a race of monsters. In order to prepare for humans, He either banished or killed most of these natives creatures; but those who remain in exile have not forgotten. One ancient tale encourages their vengeance, speaking of an angel with the power to wipe out a quarter of the world’s population. Together, the old ones form a plot to catch this being and use him to reassert their reign. But not every prophecy is a promise. Scattered throughout the globe a handful of unwilling heroes are preparing to intervene. One of these sits frozen in stone, mistaken for a statue and abandoned in a courtyard for eighty years. Though Nia finds it difficult tobelieve, that strange prison was her rescue — a cocoon that transformed and protected her until her story could truly begin. Fathom is an unapologetic mix of horror and urban fantasy that will appeal to fans of both genres. The resulting book is a sexy biblical monster story that will hold the attention of readers who appreciate a good fairy tale with an unusual point of view.

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

View all posts by Terry Weyna


  1. I don’t know if I could endure 100 pages before a book becomes interesting to me..that is very hard.

  2. I have a sort of weird reading disorder that compels me to finish virtually every single book I start. Sometimes it pays off; most of the time it doesn’t. In this case I’m rather glad I finished the book, as I consider Cherie Priest to be an up-and-comer over all. But you’re right, asking anyone to read 100 pages before a book becomes interesting is asking too much.

  3. Terry, I used to have that disorder, too. Want to know what cured me? It was working on this website and realizing how many books I need to read before I die. If a book hasn’t grabbed me in a reasonable amount of time, or if there were problems that are insurmountable, I give it the good ‘ol Did Not Finish! Too many books, too little time! … (but in this case I’m glad Fathom paid off!)

  4. You would think that reasoning would work on me, especially given the size of my growing TBR piles. I realized the other day that I’ll probably only read another 3,000 to 5,000 books in my remaining life (even assuming I have 30 years coming) — and I already own a good 9,000 books I haven’t read yet!

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