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.