6 Feb 2024

Science Fiction and Fantasy Fridays: FATHOMFOLK by Eliza Chan (Review)

Science Fiction and Fantasy Fridays introduces readers who are unfamiliar with the Adult SF/F genre to books, authors, and discussions all about the vast expanse of the world of Adult SF/F!


Author: Eliza Chan
Series: Drowned World #1
Source: ARC via publisher
Publisher: Orbit Books
Publication Date: February 27, 2024
Representation: Pan-Asian, queer side characters

Welcome to Tiankawi – shining pearl of human civilization and a safe haven for those fleeing civil unrest. Or at least, that's how it first appears. But in the semi-flooded city, humans are, quite literally, on top: peering down from shining towers and aerial walkways on the fathomfolk – sirens, seawitches, kelpies and kappas – who live in the polluted waters below.

For half-siren Mira, promotion to captain of the border guard means an opportunity to help her downtrodden people. But if earning the trust and respect of her human colleagues wasn't hard enough, everything Mira has worked towards is put in jeopardy when Nami, a know-it-all water dragon and fathomfolk princess – is exiled to the city, under Mira’s watch. When extremists sabotage a city festival, violence erupts, as does the clampdown on fathomfolk rights. Both Nami and Mira must decide if the cost of change is worth paying, or if Tiankawi should be left to drown.

(note that these are affiliate links! I receive a small amount of compensation at no cost to you)
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book and chose to review it. This in no way impacts my opinion.

Content Warning: death, grief, xenophobia, racism, knives, kidnapping, torture, fighting, police brutality, discussions of war, parental neglect

This review is part of an ongoing series of highlighting Orbit's 2024 New Voices!

I really wanted to like this one, but something just felt like it was missing for me. First and foremost, this was a mix of a variety of Asian cultures, which didn't quite hit the mark for me. It felt like it was all over the place instead of immersed in one specific folklore or mythology. Other reviewers, such as Mai, have outlined the lack of clarity and focus on mythology in a way that makes sense.

As for the rest... I wanted this to have a bit more substance. I felt like we were meandering along through different plot points instead of things being more action packed and thoughtful. I think part of the issue with this was the choice in perspectives.

With three point of views (POVs) to follow, it made it really difficult for me to understand who knew what and how they would have figured it out. It also felt like sometimes we were getting information or seeing a scene from the wrong perspective. I didn't really like any of the perspectives, but Mira's felt the most grounded in the story and narrative as opposed to Serena and Nami.

Mira (half-siren) was the first fathomfolk in the military and the first to reach captaincy. Kai (dragon) (not a perspective, but shown in both Mira's and Nami's POVs) is the ambassador for fathomfolk trying to work towards a better future for his people. Nami (dragon) is Kai’s opinionated and stubborn younger sister who is exiled to the above-water city by their mother and is determined for drastic change and falls in with an anti-human rebellious extremist group. Cordelia (sea witch) is the ambitious, selfish wife of one of the most powerful councillors who manipulates from behind the scenes, striking deals to better her position.

Now if you aren't confused, there's also a "twist" that the one perspective, labelled "Serena" is actually Cordelia. This happens like 5 minutes into the book, so it's not a "twist" in my opinion. But it was such a silly plot point except to show us the duality of how people are treated - which we were ALREADY seeing with the other perspectives.

If we were going to get a "human" perspective, that would have been much more interesting and enlightening to the way that the world and politics work. Serena/Cordelia was not a great character, her flaws heavily outweighed any aspect of her good elements. And instead of actually breaking the "sea witch" trope (like she hoped to do), she fell right into it instead.

Which is another aspect I didn't enjoy - the politics. I took Political Science for my degrees and this book was just a mess. It was all over the place with the trope of ambassadors trying to solve problems from within, young political extremism, and generally taking advantage of the system.

There was no nuance to any of this, it was so blatantly obvious that it felt a bit like the author thought if she wasn't putting it into every scene, dialogue, and thought from every perspective. It cheapened any of the scenes that looked at things like the xenophobic-adjacent issues and behaviours and looks at how a society can come together, or fall apart, when forced to integrate, work together, and confront long-held prejudices.

The romances felt quite juvenile and very insta-love like, especially Nami's. Everything felt fairly predictable especially with Nami's perspective in general. Mira and Kai coming from such different backgrounds to fall in love was fine except that we didn't really see any of it. Mira also feels at one point like she's falling out of love with Kai only for them to get back together with little to no fanfare. I just wanted someone's relationship to not feel so forced and out of place.

The familial relationships in this were really great, though! I loved watching Mira and her mom together and the sacrifices they both made for one another. I also thought Kai and Nami had a good sibling relationship that made it quite intriguing to read about. The idea of found family even was a good concept in this book where you had a lot of people struggling to find their identities and look to others for that.

The pacing of this book was so slow and boring at some points. Then at the end, I felt like it could have ended about six different times but then it kept going. I don't understand why each chapter and scene near the end felt like an epilogue (and there WAS an epilogue) rather than the next logical sequence in the book. It just felt like it was all too much rather than a solid and well thought out book. And with this being the first in a series, I'm concerned about where this is going to go next, especially with the ending.

I feel like the more of this review I write, the less I like the book. I was so happy to receive it early and have the chance to review it. The cover is gorgeous and in theory this should have checked off all my boxes. It's compared to The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart, but it does not compare at all to it in my opinion.

This one might be a pass!

Are you going to pick this one up?


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