As a caveat, I found the description on this edition of the book quite misleading. Its tone is glib. Phrases like "task force" and "add in a hapless fire inspector who's just trying to get his paperwork in order" cultivates a tongue-in-cheek feel that made me expect a zanier book than Cherie Priest delivers. So if you're basing your decision to read the book on the description, don't be surprised if Fathom defies your expectations.
That's essentially Fathom in a nutshell: it defies expectations. At least it did mine. Priest blends traditional fantasy with pantheist and polytheist pantheons to create a dark fairy tale of family and transformation. While her writing style is exquisite, ultimately, I was left disenchanted by the story itself.
Set in 1930s Florida, Fathom concerns the machinations of the elements personified. The water witch Arahab wants to remake the world by waking the Leviathan, which slumbers deep beneath the Earth. A demoted elemental, nicknamed Mossfeaster, who now oversees the process of earthly decay sets out to thwart Arahab's plans. Stuck in the middle are four mortals: an eighteenth-century pirate, a deranged New York teenager, her Florida country cousin, and the aforementioned "hapless fire inspector."
Bernice and Nia are cousins, the classic "city girl/country girl" pairing that starts many a story set in rural areas. When Bernice attacks her stepfather, who has perhaps been abusing her (we only have her word on it, although I gather we're supposed to believe her so she becomes a tragic character), and ends up killing him, she implores her horrified cousin to help her hide the evidence. Nia refuses, setting off a dramatic chase sequence that culminates in a deadly encounter just off shore.
This is where the description deviates from the story. Maybe it's just me, but the way the description was worded made it sound like this part of the story would last longer. It happened in about a chapter. Arahab takes Bernice and transforms her into some sort of water creature; Mossfeaster turns Nia into a stone statue so she can gradually transform into something he can use as an ally. And Bernice's mother just . . . leaves, for no satisfactory reason.
As Bernice and Nia each come into their powers and confront the fact they are no longer mortal, their respective "sponsors" are setting plans into motion. Arahab wants Bernice to help ex-pirate José Gaspar sail a ship deep into a fissure in the ocean floor and wake the Leviathan. Bernice, however, isn't quite ready for the end of the world—she was only nineteen when she died, and she thinks it's awfully rude of Mother to try to end the world before Bernice has had a chance to experience more of it. So she concocts a plan to weaken her Mother, just enough to delay the end of the world for a century or two. But Arahab didn't get to be Big Water Witch on Campus by being dense, oh no. She knows all about Bernice's penchant for treachery, and Bernice's plan backfires, costing Gaspar his life. Not that I liked him much anyway.
Meanwhile, Nia emerges from her cocoon stone shell as an incredibly durable person in bad need of a haircut. She's aided by Sam, the hapless fire inspector, who obediently hijacks vehicles on demand and pays the ferry toll. Together, they're going to help Mossfeaster prevent Arahab from waking the Leviathan. Along the way, we get an interesting comparison between two types of elementals: Mossfeaster, who views humanity as a potential ally, and after getting to know Sam, a little more respect; and Arahab, who views humans as just a particularly annoying form of animal, easily crushed if in the way. Even though she displays "love" for her "children" Gaspar and Bernice, we see that her love is merely another tool she employs to get what she wants. Mossfeaster, on the other hand, never claims to hold any love for Nia—although it does care for her more than it will admit. She is just a tool who happened to come along at the right moment. However, since Mossfeaster wants to prevent the end of the world, its amoral nature is slightly superior to Arahab's.
I apologize if my tone verges on sarcasm in places, as it doesn't do justice to Priest's writing. Fathom was a pleasure to read; however, it doesn't seem to hold up under any sort of serious scrutiny.
At first glance, Fathom's plot seems like a welcome diversion from the sword-and-sorcery epic fantasy method of saving the world, consisting of massive armies, dragons, wizards, etc. Instead, we've got elementals battling it out through proxies in 1930s Florida, hijacked ambulances and fire wagons, and an iron tower. Unfortunately, scratch away the superficial differences, and the plot becomes paper-thin. And there's just not enough of a plot to stretch for as long as Priest does, which is why I felt like the book was oddly paced compared to how the description makes it sound.
The same can be said for Fathom's characters. Bernice and Nia are supposed to be mirrors for Arahab and Mossfeaster. Family battles family. Yet the thematic importance of these conflicts is hollow, for Priest gives neither side enough motivation. Bernice is just downright evil, either because she's always been that way or because her stepfather abused her. So naturally, she does what an inherently evil minion will do and betrays her own "Mother," even though Mother is also "evil." Nia, on the other hand, is just resigned to helping because she has nowhere else to go—her life as she knows it is over because she's spent several years trapped in statue form while her family grieved and moved on. And she does precious little in the book except run very fast to different places. Likewise, Sam is the token human for the good guys, whose seemingly-major role steadily dwindles as the story progresses. Unfortunately, there are no characters to admire in Fathom, because none of them seem very real or interesting.
Most of the gestures in Fathom are token, like this book is the skeleton of a fantasy story rather than an actual story. Parts are missing, whether they're plot points or character motivations. I get the impression that those missing parts exist, but Priest fails to communicate them, or imply them in her characters' actions. As a result, the story never takes on a life of its own; the characters never become more than players on a stage. Fathom is easy to read, and enjoyable on the surface. Beneath that, however, lurks little nutrition.