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This stunning Norse-inspired fantasy has everything going for it: great cover, exciting plot, and amazing character development!
Book: Beneath Cruel Fathoms by Anela Deen
Read before: No
Release date: 17th May 2020
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by author. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Violence and injury (including stitches); discussions of infertility; familial abuse, both emotional and physical; mentions of spousal abuse; scenes of near-drowning.
Beneath Cruel Fathoms is a gorgeous fantasy suffused with Norse mythology and full of phenomenal characters. When the story begins, healer Isaura is heading home to her father’s house, reeling from the break-up of her marriage, when the ship she’s traveling on is caught in a sudden storm and destroyed. There’s no hope of surviving the wreck – or there wouldn’t be if not for Leonel, the last of the merfolk, who saves her life. But Leonel doesn’t rescue her out of the goodness of his heart, and this is not the Little Mermaid retelling you’re imagining… Rather, he needs Isaura’s help to prove that there’s something sinister and unnatural behind these storms, and he’s willing to break all the rules of the sea to prove it and finally earn the respect of his divine parents and siblings. Their forbidden partnership could have dangerous consequences for both of them, but something else builds between them that may well prove to be just as valuable as the answers to Leonel’s investigations.
There’s a remarkable amount packed into these 350-odd pages, and it’s a real testament to the writing that I never felt like the different elements were fighting for attention; every part of the world bolsters something else. We have the mystery of the storms, and the dangerous magical war they herald, but even while I was thoroughly engrossed in the investigation, I was watching a sweet and rewarding love story develop. And every step of the romance was twined intimately with the character development of Leonel and Isaura – and every part of their personal journeys drew on the worlds they grew up in. I loved how fully realised this world feels, and how the mythological and magical aspects weave through everything – it’s a really vivid setting that will stick with me for a while. There’s also a good measure of humour, particularly when the book leans into the classic mermaid tropes and explores Leonel’s attempts to adjust to land habits like buttons and trousers!
The lover of court fantasy in me adored the scenes at the underwater palace of Leonel’s father, King Ægir. Ægir and Ran, in Norse mythology and here, are the parents of nine daughters who are the personifications of the waves, and I loved their vicious, formal family dynamic – it’s not a family I’d want to be in, for sure, but I loved reading about them. Leonel is not a figure from mythology, so it’s really interesting to see how he fits in (or doesn’t!) to the family and the world – he’s Ran’s son from another relationship, though he has been adopted by Ægir, and no one ever lets him forget his status as an outsider. This is of course compounded by the fact that he’s the last of the merfolk, and feels very disconnected from his heritage – I thought his struggles with wanting to be self-sufficient, but also battling intense loneliness, were very well depicted, and as much as I love a palace, I was immediately rooting for him to find something he could more accurately call home.
Where I think Deen really excels is in her characters, which is what tends to make or break a book for me. You can have all the clever world-building ideas you want, but a book won’t truly sing unless the characters feel like living, breathing people, and Beneath Cruel Fathoms is a fabulous example of this. Underneath all the adventure and romance is a really heartfelt message about finding a way to believe in yourself after years of thinking you’re worthless, and it’s beautifully done. Both Isaura and Leonel have a huge amount of self-loathing – him because of his mortal nature and his constant belittlement at the hands of his family, and her because of her broken marriage and struggles to have children – and their growth throughout the book feels realistically difficult, but also extremely satisfying. Isaura’s emotional journey in particular is beautifully nuanced, and will resonate with a lot of women who have felt their self-worth is tied in some way to their fertility – I’ll reiterate my content warning from above and say to watch out if this is a sensitive subject for you, as it can be intense. As I say, this is just such good character work – Isaura and Leonel both have to realise that they are so much more than single facets of their identity, which wouldn’t work at all if the reader didn’t also believe that! Though this is definitely more fantasy than romance, the attention to the subtleties of how two people can grow separately and together is worthy of the best romance novel.
Overall, I suppose this is quite a dark book, full of the grim realities of humanity (and divinity) and with plenty of dramatic violence, but something about it feels very hopeful. Isaura and Leonel can make a difference to the world, and not just in the heroic sense, but in small, domestic ways too, creating happiness in each other and the people around them. It seems silly to call a book that’s so full of icy sea-spray and battle “cosy”, but it has that comforting, uplifting, optimistic quality that really makes me adore a book. I actually think it perfectly captures the vibe of Norse mythology – wild and dangerous but with a real sense of place and community.
This is the first book in a trilogy, but it looks like focus will switch to Isaura’s brother, Jurek, and Leonel’s sister, Ava, in the next book. Isaura and Leonel’s story wraps up in a very satisfying way, while still leaving the wider world open for the sequel – and wow, did that ending leave me excited for Between Savage Tides, which is coming out in August! Five out of five cats!