February 27, 2024


By Eliza Chan
Review by
Set in a city that’s half aboveground and half underwater, Eliza Chan’s Fathomfolk pairs fantastical races and real-world politics.
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Tiankawi may be a city half-submerged in water, but like so many cities, it is divided between the haves and the have-nots. The haves, who inhabit Tiankawi’s sweeping spires, are nearly all human. Some of the have-nots are too, but the majority of the city’s dispossessed are of the fathomfolk diaspora: people of the sea who have been forced out of their underwater havens by pollution and human-mediated destruction. Mira straddles both worlds. The first half-siren captain in the border guard, she wants to make a difference in the lives of those who she grew up with—if anyone will let her. Mira’s way of making change is slow and methodical, often relying on her well-connected water dragon boyfriend to help push for better legislation and provide an image of a model minority. Her boyfriend’s sister, Nami, has other plans. Banished to Tiankawi for her rebellious ways, she begins to associate with groups who view violence as necessary for revolution. As she bonds with these new friends, she begins to realize that their methods may be questionable, and soon both Nami and Mira will be forced to grapple with the fallout.

A modern urban fairy tale, Eliza Chan’s Fathomfolk pairs futuristic cityscapes with fantastical races and real-world politics. The folk are in many ways climate refugees, feared by their hosts and forced to wear bracelets that suppress their powers and prevent them from harming humans, even in self-defense. While it is tempting to draw parallels between the central struggle for the rights of fathomfolk and the rights of refugees in general, Chan’s focus on the intersectionality of issues within Tiankawi makes it satisfyingly difficult to draw a straight line between our world and hers. Chan shows the divisions among the folk, from species-based class divisions among the sea dragons, kappa and kelpies to a distaste for families of mixed heritage. But she also shows that a society bent on oppressing one group will surely not stop there: Tiankawi’s slums are as full of humans as they are full of folk, and its draconian policies harm everyone. This message, both obscured and amplified by the fantasy elements of the story, makes Fathomfolk a nuanced, powerful and complex parable, one that raises questions that linger far after the novel reaches its conclusion.

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By Eliza Chan
ISBN 9780316564922

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