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Fathom by Cherie Priest

Fathom by Cherie Priest (Tor, 2008) is a fantasy that, in all aspects of the word, celebrates the importance of family. Not necessarily emphasising the importance of love, you understand. Indeed, there’s an overarching sense that love is a human weakness. But rather identifying a powerful form of selfish loyalty based on kinship and a shared ancestry. Let’s start with the proposition that a mother is the creator of her children. In much the same way that a collector may fiercely defend treasured items from the ravages of time and other perils, so a mother will always seek to defend her children. But she will not necessarily feel obliged to sacrifice herself in a futile attempt to save those children. When all is said and done, a fertile mother can always create more children. Equally, the love of her children does not translate into a love for the children of others. They command no duty of protection. Indeed, if they are in the way, they will be sacrificed to achieve the mother’s greater purpose.

At an elemental level, the Earth is in balance. Moving air can fan the flames but, in sufficient quantity, water can suppress fire and stone can contain it. So the centre of the Earth is magma, a molten fluid that melts stone because of the pressure. As we move closer to the surface, the mantle is formed as the pressure drops and the fire cools. Should magma break through the mantle and emerge on to the surface as lava, heat will dissipate. The speed of heat loss will depend on the ambient temperature if on land, or the volume of water surrounding it. But the reality is that, sooner or later, the lava cools, reverts to a solid form, and the integrity of the mantle is restored. Over time, moving water will wear down the stone to sculpt the land into valleys and bore underground passages. There will be evaporation and precipitation. Through such processes and over millions of years, Earth has been in balance and, because of that stability, life has been able to develop. At first, the life forms were the product of the forces in balance. Think of them as spirits of the air, water, fire and earth. Some like Leviathan were more powerful. Death, until banished, was all-powerful. Then, through evolution, came the animals and, eventually, the arrogant humans who deceive themselves into believing they have power but, in relative terms, they are cannon fodder to be killed off by tornadoes, floods, eruptions, earthquakes and other catastrophic phenomena. I suppose this explains why we humans have so consistently invented gods based on the different ways in which the natural world can kill us. Later, when we realised our place in the universe, it’s been open to people like H P Lovecraft and others to expand the mythology in cosmic terms.

Cherrie Priest before she was overtaken by steampunk

Fathom sees the female side of the usual reproductive cycle in the ascendancy as the major spirit of water creates two children for herself, i.e. elevates two humans as her avatars on the land. The ultimate aim is to wake Leviathan which is bad news for the humans since this will most likely cause the end of balance and the destruction of the Earth. Opposing her is another young woman who’s been uplifted to superpowers. On the way, a young fireman called Sam (deliberate reference to fire in view) is caught up in the action, but he’s only human and so slows everyone else down. When in a bind, it always comes down to the women to sort out the dispute and decide the winners and losers. Indeed, almost all the male figures in this book either die or stay neutral which is perhaps as it should be in a book written by a woman. It makes a refreshing change to get away from fantasy in which male wizards battle it out with the help of hobbits, dwarves, elves and the occasional human male (with the occasional female as chaste love interest until the fighting is over). If women do appear in male fantasies, they tend to be the embodiment of evil and characterised as witches, enchantresses, harpies, and other diabolical beings. In Fathom, the spirit of water is maternal in the sense described in the first paragraph and is not really evil at all. She simply has a different set of values to humans and sees their survival as irrelevant in her quest to reunite with Leviathan.

Taking the overview, Fathom is superior fantasy, full of inventiveness and a deft use of atmosphere. Reading it, I’m rather saddened Cherie Priest should later have gone on to write ordinary urban fantasy. There’s such great promise here for an individual voice to say something interesting about the human condition, all surrendered as she finds her market in increasingly tame steampunk adventures and generic stories about ass-kicking females saving the cities if not the planet. I suppose the thoughtful, creative material doesn’t sell in sufficient numbers to support a modern writer — a sad reflection on the buying habits of those who claim to enjoy fantasy.

For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
The Inexplicables
Those Who Went Remain There Still

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