ARC Review: Fathomfolk by Eliza Chan

Today’s review is about FATHOMFOLK by Eliza Chan, which is the first novel in the Drowned World series. It’s a fantasy story that skillfully incorporates many real world experiences, such as immigration, racism, and change. This is a wonderful debut novel by Eliza Chan.

However, I noticed that the average Goodreads review is surprisingly low. This is something I genuinely don’t understand. So, in an effort to communicate why I think this is a great book, I wrote a somewhat longer review. I hope this convinces you to check it out for yourself rather than rely on an averaged star rating.

Author: Eliza Chan
Series: Drowned World, #1
Age Category: Adult
Publisher: Orbit
Publish Date: February 27, 2024
Print Length: 448

Want to support local bookstores? Buy a copy of Fathomfolk on!*

*These are not affiliate links and I do not make a commission from any purchase made using these links.

Official Synopsis

Revolution is brewing in the semi-submerged city of Tiankawi, between humans and the fathomfolk who live in its waters. This gloriously imaginative debut fantasy, inspired by East Asian mythology and ocean folk tales, is a novel of magic, rebellion and change.

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.

My Review

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher. My review is my own and reflects my honest opinion about this book.

FATHOMFOLK at its heart is a novel about diaspora, prejudices, and fighting for basic rights. Tiankawi, where humans call home, has become a haven for the fathomfolk–kappas, sirens, and kelpies–who flow in from their destroyed ethnic homelands. But this new place they call home has polluted waters and even more foul politics. Tension between the fathomfolk and humans is ever present. Some try to make it a better place, either peacefully from within or via more forceful means. Others do whatever it takes to stay ahead of the game.

There are three main points of view in FATHOMFOLK: Mira, Nami, and Cordelia. Mira is half human and half siren and worked tirelessly for her promotion to captain of the border guard. She hopes to use her position to affect better change for the fathomfolk. Nami is a water dragon and fathomfolk princess, and the sister of Kai, whose partner is Mira. She finds herself exiled from her homeland to Tiankawi with a mission. And Cordelia is a seawitch who foremost cares about making bargains with the desperate to benefit and further her ambitions. Each point of view offers a very different personality and background to show how everyone’s life experiences vary.

It can take a few chapters to start to sink into the story. This is because there are several POVs and backgrounds and the author needs to set the scenes. But there are enough subtle reminders, even deeper into the story, to help the reader along. The writing style is easy to follow. It’s not a very lyrical style, but I appreciate that for this story. It doesn’t distract from all of the important themes and discussion points that surface throughout.

These themes encompass immigration, the diaspora, racism, fear, and power. I really love how the author weaves these points into the story, whether it’s through the characters’ actions or interactions. While FATHOMFOLK isn’t necessarily a “think piece” in the academic sense, it broaches a lot of feelings and topics experienced by folks who may not reside in their historical ethnic homeland.

One such experience is the assumption that someone whose appearance differs from the perceived norm is someone who isn’t from Tiankawi. Nami, as someone who was born in Tiankawi, represents this. She is also half human and siren, representing those who might feel like they don’t quite “belong” in either culture. She feels distant from her heritage, but despite growing up in Tiankawi, isn’t fully accepted as Tiankawian by most humans because of her fathomfolk heritage. This also creates the feeling of imposter’s syndrome, despite fighting to suppress it, even though Nami worked hard to achieve her position.

Although humans exhibit plenty of racism and prejudice against fathomfolk, some fathomfolk are guilty of this as well. Having grown up in Yonakuni with all of the creature comforts, Nami doesn’t realize her prejudices until she arrives at Tiankawi. Through her the reader sees that fathomfolk hold their own prejudices and classism within their culture. Nami also represents someone who desires action without knowing the full story, yet acts anyway. This naivete attracts fathomfolk rebels who prefer demonstrations for the greater good. It also attracts manipulators who prey on emotions and vulnerability. And then there are those, like Cordelia, who don’t particularly care about changing anything. They just look out for their own welfare. Those who take advantage of refugees fall into this category.

FATHOMFOLK also demonstrates that there is more than one way to affect change. The rebels, or Drawbacks, prefer violent demonstrations. Nami and Kai, however, represent those who prefer systematic, diplomatic changes from within. These two different ways of trying to change the system reflect the different extremes of achieving the same end goal. One way may feel too slow and ineffectual whereas the other can come across as wreckless and terrorism.

There is so much more to discuss about this book, like law enforcement brutality and the physical restriction of fathomfolks’ freedom. There’s also a short aside about how the younger generation of the race in power tries to show they’re not racist. But the way in which they go about it is offensive and performative and misses the point. There’s also the fact that to the humans the fathomfolk and their innate powers (and change) are a threat to human dominance in Tiankawi. And, there’s a reveal at the end I wish I could talk about, but it’s a spoiler, so I refrain.

In short, Eliza Chan created a colorful fantasy that reflects what many in immigrant and diaspora communities may experience or experienced. This world is a shell that houses the many complexities that arise from a changing world, whether good, bad, or ugly. FATHOMFOLK artfully incorporates these issues and is a great read for those who appreciate a mix of fantasy, politics, and social issues that mirror those in the real world.

Rating: 4.25
Content warnings: racism, prejudice, gaslighting, violence, death
Reading format: ARC paperback

15 thoughts on “ARC Review: Fathomfolk by Eliza Chan

  1. Lovely review! I’m so behind with February review books but I hope to catch up with this in March. I’ve found that you can’t always trust Goodreads reviews, and I’m glad that was the case with Fathomfolk.????

    1. Thanks, Tammy! Yea, I always look at Goodreads reviews with a grain of salt, but generally I agree with the scoring a little more on GR than on Amazon (Amazon scoring in general seems more generous, in my opinion). So I’m glad I ignored all that on GR. It’s a good book and I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

    1. Yea, I saw mixed reviews too, though anecdotally I’ve seen higher scores on blogs than I have on Goodreads. I think you’ll appreciate the themes. It’s also low on the romance if that’s something you’d like to know (which was fine with me…I was kind of glad, actually…something different for me for a change :-)).

  2. This is a brilliant review. I only gave it three stars because the characters didn’t really come alive for me. I loved the politics and world building but I just found it too easy to put the book down. I did feel more invested in Mira towards the end so I’m hoping for good things from the next one.

    1. Thanks, Janette! I can see what you might mean about the characters…I saw some comments about that on Goodreads; some said it was the third person POV rather than first person that made it harder to connect with. But I liked seeing what all the characters were up to…I’m hoping we get to know them better in the next book!

  3. Fantastic review! This might not be the most complex fantasy out there, but it has a ton of important things to say, and it just hammers it all home on every page. When I first started seeing reviews at the end of last year/beginning of this year, they were very mixed and skewed negative, so I’m glad I decided to just read it. I thought it’s a wonderful read.

    1. Thank you! I do agree that it has a ton of important things to say, ones that I’m sure many people can relate to. I’m glad you decided to read it and enjoyed it. 🙂

  4. This one is on my TBR. I don’t usually read these types of fantasy but the setting piqued my interest. Your review makes me think I might feel the same way about this as I did about THE BONE SHARD DAUGHTER. I’ve typed several versions of this comment trying to explain what I mean by that but I can’t quite figure it out ???? Suffice to say I will keep your review in mind when deciding whether to give FATHOMFOLK a chance!

    1. It’s been a little while since I read THE BONE SHARD DAUGHTER, so I’m not quite sure how I could try and compare them to help convince you to read it haha. I did like that book as well, though. If you do decide to read FATHOMFOLK, though, I hope you enjoy it! ????

Leave a Reply