Author: Eliza Chan
Series: Drowned World (Book 1)
Release: 2024-02-27
Publisher: Orbit


First, thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing an advance copy, this was one of my most highly anticipated books of 2024. Despite my reviews tending to sound harsh, I was not disappointed.

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This book is a fun read, with a caveat: Fathomfolk suffers from an identity crisis, and you need to be willing to stick it through to the end for any payoff. I do feel like Eliza Chan could deliver a much-improved experience in the second book, and I’ll be one of the first to preorder it when it’s out.

That being said, the first half of Fathomfolk is YA, not even close to an adult or general audience. The characters are shallowly developed through paragraphs of narration, with much of that being in short, choppy sentences, the excess of which feels like it wasn’t properly edited. Eliza Chan’s worldbuilding is lovely, but to the detriment of deeper storytelling; her vivid descriptions of scenes and locales feels like she’s taking us on a guided tour of her creation instead of moving the story along. New species of folk are introduced, but none of them are actually described in any way. Most people who DNF this book will do so in the first half.

The unfortunate issues in the first half affect the second half. Chan hits her stride at about the 60% mark. More engaging prose and depth of story, with less unnecessary place descriptions, makes the writing more distinctly adult. Unfortunately, that’s already past the point of no return for many; without proper build-up in the first half, the second half feels disjointed. Important information about big aspects of the ending is left out completely in most of the book, with real information about dragons severely lacking and most of the ending having almost no memorable basis in the first half.

Fathomfolk tries to be political, but has two big problems: it doesn’t have enough nuance to manage, and its premise for inequality makes little sense. The main plot of the story is that Tiankawi is a partially-submerged city, where the sea-dwelling Fathomfolk (a catch-all term for all mythical water creatures who can take a humanesque form) are barely treated as citizens and suffer greatly in their diaspora as they migrate from their own collapsing settlements. It follows Mira, the half-siren Captain of the border guard, Nami, a water dragon who is the sister of Mira’s partner Kai, and Cordelia a scheming sea witch.

The plot quickly falls apart as soon as one starts to wonder why the Fathomfolk are in Tiankawi in the first place. These are literal ocean-dwellers. They were born and evolved in the seas and have no reason to be living on or close to land, let alone in human settlements where they’re stuck in shallow bays full of pollution. They’re built to thrive in the hostile depths where no humans should ever be able to bother them. No real reason why the Fathomfolk are gathering at Tiankawi is ever given besides a vague “they’re refugees,” and there doesn’t seem to be any reason they can’t happily be living out in the oceans at all.

From there, things get a bit sticky. The characters whose POVs we’re given are all Fathomfolk, but privileged enough to keep a black-and-white view of fighting oppression intact and stop a reader from asking too many gray questions. Nami, a dragon, grew up pampered and spoiled in the sea and has never known true oppression. Cordelia is a third-generation Tiankawian who is established enough to prey on the most vulnerable members of society. Mira is basically an Immigration officer who lives with her wealthy dragon partner and has the perk of not having to wear the magic-muting bracelets all other Fathomfolk are forced into. Her job is to police other Fathomfolk, despite repeated reminders she comes from refugee beginnings.

The book cuts those fighting for their very survival into “the good ones” (those who don’t rock the boat and push for change through the slow-moving cogs of law) and “the bad ones” (straight up terrorists who don’t balk at killing other innocent Fathomfolk for their cause). There is no real in-between. Ultimately, though, this entire crux of most of the book’s plot ends up not meaning anything anyway. The ending, while setting up an interesting start for the second book, seems to posit that the only way to solve these thorny societal issues is to make sure a society only has one kind of people in it.

Despite Fathomfolk’s missteps, Eliza Chan becomes a noticeably stronger writer as the book progresses. While I wasn’t too fond of the first half–and despite the second half being poorly paced because of it–I was intrigued enough by the series’ overarching story that I am looking forward to the second book. My hope is that the first book’s most-repeated criticisms can be addressed during the second book’s development, to deliver a better-paced, more thought-out sequel. I look forward to reading it to find out.

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