Above and Below: Two Communities Come to Blows in Fathomfolk by Eliza Chan

In the city of Tiankawi, the tide is an ever present threat, threatening to sweep all away. As such disaster looms, one would hope to see communities coming together, putting aside differences, and helping keep each other’s heads above water. However, in Eliza Chan’s debut novel, Fathomfolk, while those tides are indeed rising, no one can see them for the conflicts of the every day. Humanity is threatened by the rising numbers of those known as fathomfolk, doing their best to shove these beings of magic and myth back in the water. There are the fathomfolk, forced to breathe the toxic waters of a polluted sea and still forced behind human interest. And there are those in the middle, not wanting to pick, but to save as many people from either side as possible. This churn and these rising tides, both literal and metaphorical, are front and center in this energetic debut, as the city of Tiankawi and Chan’s multitude of voices each try to navigate political turmoil, social injustice, and two communities about to come to blows. 

From the start, we have a bevy of characters giving us insight into the various concerns afflicting Tiankawi. Mira, a half-siren woman, has been promoted to a position of leadership in the chinthe, the border guard of the city who help maintain safety—especially between humans and fathomfolk, a bountiful community of water-breathing peoples: mermaids, sirens, seawitches, kappas, redcaps, and many more. With her partner, Kai, a water dragon prince and the fathomfolk ambassador, she does her best to advocate for their peoples and keep the peace. Meanwhile, Kai’s sister Nami, a young water dragon of privilege who is exiled to Tiankawi after a busted heist, is soon attracted to the Drawbacks, a group of revolutionaries dedicated to tearing down the human world and bringing justice for the fathomfolk, who are treated like second-class citizens. And all the while Cordelia, a scheming seawitch, slithers and treads between characters and classes, using her shapeshifting and innate magical alchemy to her benefit, furthering her own personal agendas. All of these characters and their goals begin to mesh together and intertwine, putting not just the city of Tiankawi but all of its citizens, human and fathomfolk alike, in the gravest of danger. 

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You can feel the love author Eliza Chan poured into this book on every page. There’s a lot of great East Asian mythology at play in the various fathomfolk brought to life, and the city of Tiankawi feels inspired by a number of Asian cultures from food to fashion to transportation and more. Chan makes the city and the world itself a living and breathing entity, adding to works like The City and The City, The Lies of Locke Lamora, and A Study in Drowning, in which the location itself is a character for the reader to love, understand, and root for. As we come to know Mira, Kai, Nami, and Cordelia, we see the city through their eyes, and see the beauty and splendor of the fathomfolk as much as we see their suffering under the law of humanity, the gill-less too terrified of their magical abilities and mythic forms to see them as people worthy of respect and care. The focus on social issues, communal solidarity, and navigating two worlds, neither of which want you, is when Fathomfolk is at its strongest; the movement toward justice can be a thorny one, made more complicated by differing perspectives and violence as a means to an end. It’s when Chan balances myth and place with theme and character that Fathomfolk shines as bright as a pearl in the sun.

However, if you’ve been reading so far and are thinking this is all a lot to balance, you would be correct. There is a fine line, especially in epic fantasy, between worldbuilding and pacing, and unfortunately there are moments here when you can feel one beginning to tip over into the other, and while the writing can work, the flow as a whole slows down. On the other hand, there are moments where the story moves along at a quick clip, the pace beginning to smooth, but in doing so, there are bits of characterization or story revelation not quite given the heft and weight they deserve in order for the reader to really invest in either. It doesn’t take away from any of the excellent moments to be found within, but it is worth noting that as much as Chan sticks the landing in some places, there are others where there can be a bit of a stumble. 

But one must ask, does one expect perfection from a debut novel? No. In fact, expecting perfection from any art, in any medium, is going to make your life a lot less joyful. I’d argue that Fathomfolk has the heart, the beauty, and the creativity to make me invested in Chan as a writer, making me particularly excited to see what comes next in this series and in her career as a whole. After all, you can work on the technical bits and push yourself to continue to grow, but you can’t build a heart from nothing, or wring blood from a stone. For all that there were some slow moments or some muddy characterization, there is so much love, energy, and passion poured into Fathomfolk to make this a novel worthy of your time and attention. I’m excited to dive back into whatever waters Eliza Chan wades into next. icon-paragraph-end

Fathomfolk is published by Orbit.

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