fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFathomless by Jackson PearceFathomless by Jackson Pearce

Seaside resorts are fascinating places. Whether it’s Santa Cruz, CA; Point Pleasant, New Jersey; or even Waikiki beach in Hawaii, they have an air of tawdriness and mystery simultaneously. Jackson Pearce uses this numinous setting to powerful effect in her dark YA fantasy Fathomless.

Pearce uses the fairy tale “The Little Mermaid” as the springboard for Fathomless. Lo is an ocean girl, living in the sea off the shore of Georgia. She isn’t a mermaid, because she still has legs, but walking on land sends saber-cuts of pain through her body, and the soles of her feet bleed. Lo knows that she was once human, but cannot remember how she came to be here with her “sisters,” the other ocean girls.

The ocean girls believe that they no longer have souls. They stay in the ocean until they have aged (rather like cheese) and are taken up to the surface where they transform into angels. If they want to return to being human, they must make a mortal love them. Then they drown the mortal and assume the mortal’s soul in place of their own.

Lo is on her way to following the transformation to “angel,” when she saves a musician from drowning. Doing this, she meets Celia, a young woman who ran into the surf to try to rescue the boy as well. Celia is no ordinary teenaged girl. She is the youngest of triplets, and all three of the sisters have magical powers. Anne can see a person’s future, Jane can read thoughts and Celia can see a person’s past. She may hold the key to Lo’s salvation.

The story alternates first-person narration between Celia and Lo and later Naida, the human girl Lo once was. Jude, the musician, believes that it is Celia who saved him, and they start a romance, but he has vague memories of a brown-haired girl singing to him. He meets Lo at the shore one night, and Lo begins to believe that he will fall in love with her. Celia, meanwhile, is at odds with her sisters because she is trying to keep the secret of Lo from them. And her work with Lo, uncovering more of her human memories, calls into question everything Lo has been told by her ocean-going sisters.

I tend to like modern retellings of fairy tales, and Pearce’s book is brimming with magic and mystery. Her language is simple, ranging from almost poetic with Lo to modern and witty with Celia. Celia’s relationship with her sisters (and her family history) is compelling and fascinating, and almost shifts the balance of the story, since it is Lo’s moral choices that drive the plot and the consequences in this story.

I wanted to give this book four, or at least three and a half stars, but a couple of things hold it back from that. I didn’t really understand the backstory of the creatures who create the ocean girls. They are dramatic and scary, but they don’t seem feasible, even within a magical setting. Pearce is hampered by a simple problem; she correctly chose alternating first-person for her story, but none of the first-person characters know enough to give the readers the exposition we need. The character of Molly comes close but even she can’t do it because she doesn’t know the history either. Secondly, the book skirts the issues of what happens when magic world meets real world. It’s acceptable that Celia, who is magical herself, would believe in a magical being, but Lo watches one of her sisters leave the water and murder a fisherman on the beach. Later, there is no mention of the murder. Apparently over the years several young men have drowned in the surf, but there are no local legends about it. The tropical storm at the end of the book could have been foreshadowed more, even though we probably all knew it was coming. Pearce needed to tie her two worlds together better.

Still, Fathomless is a poignant story about magic and choices. Lo’s choice is not as simple as good versus evil; it is whether to choose one evil to prevent a greater one. That’s a hard choice. Celia’s struggle to accept her own powers is believable. All of the characters, even secondary ones, have their own problems and choices. This is an enjoyable and thought-provoking fantasy.

Fathomless — (2012) Young adult. Publisher: Celia Reynolds is the youngest in a set of triplets and the one with the least valuable power. Anne can see the future, and Jane can see the present, but all Celia can see is the past. And the past seems so insignificant — until Celia meets Lo. Lo doesn’t know who she is. Or who she was. Once a human, she is now almost entirely a creature of the sea — a nymph, an ocean girl, a mermaid — all terms too pretty for the soulless monster she knows she’s becoming. Lo clings to shreds of her former self, fighting to remember her past, even as she’s tempted to embrace her dark immortality. When a handsome boy named Jude falls off a pier and into the ocean, Celia and Lo work together to rescue him from the waves. The two form a friendship, but soon they find themselves competing for Jude’s affection. Lo wants more than that, though. According to the ocean girls, there’s only one way for Lo to earn back her humanity. She must persuade a mortal to love her… and steal his soul.

Retold Fairytales

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  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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