Cherie Priest's writing is the kind that pulls the reader under until she surfaces, many hours and missed train stops later, at the end of the book.
This time out, the story begins with two cousins, Bernice and Nia, who are stuck spending the summer together on an island off of Florida. Bernice is enraged at her stepfather and accuses him of abusing her, and Nia arrives in time to see her cousin commit murder. Because Nia is a witness to the crime, she is afraid for her own life. The only way she can think of to escape is to dash into the ocean, hoping to swim to a lighthouse she sees in the distance or to at least give herself time to form a new plan. Bernice follows and is taken by the water witch Arahab, who imagines a role for her in a plan to wake up the sleeping Leviathan, a giant who lives deep within the earth. Nia is transformed by the evening's events, too, waking up some time later, encased in stone, on the island's shore.
The two cousins play the same roles in the ensuing good-versus-evil narrative as in the book's initial scenes. Bernice joins Arahab's other captive, the pirate José Gaspar; Arahab needs both of them to gather the call, a bronzed shell that will control the Leviathan. Nia spends an uncertain amount of time as a statue on the island, beset by bugs and the members of a strange island cult. She meets Mossfeaster, Arahab's earthy opposite, who assembles a body for himself out of leaves and dirt the same way Arahab creates herself from the water. Mossfeaster is the one who preserved Nia, whose stone casing eventually cracks, leaving her mobile again. Mossfeaster, Nia, and a curious but only slightly clued-in fire inspector named Sam challenge Arahab and Bernice. Bernice's allegiances shift, too, as she realizes she wants more time on Earth before Arahab's plans destroy it. It is up to Nia to retrieve the call, thereby saving the world.
Priest describes Bernice and Nia in accordance with their elemental natures. Bernice is always a marine creature, as her companion José Gaspar observes: "[H]er skin was translucent and tinted with the runny blue and green in which she had marinated all this time. Her limbs were too slick to be human. Her hands were too finned for gloves, and her hair tangled into seaweed locks like the island Africans used to wear" (p. 74). The other characters regularly describe Bernice as a shark, leaving a trail of blood behind her after every encounter with mortals.
When it's Nia's turn to narrate, it's nature, rather than water, that gets attention, fitting for a woman whose life was saved by Mossfeaster. As she escapes with Bernice from an encounter with Arahab, Nia notices the curtains of trees above her, the "spread-fingered fans" of palmetto leaves, the snakes around her winding their way into the ground (p. 321). Nia also maintains a stone-like unflappability through some of the most adrenaline-filled moments of the book.
Bernice and Nia are saved on the night of the initial murder so that they can be used by their respective preservers, and indeed, one of my few disappointments with the book was that the two women rarely seemed to rise above the level of being tools in grander plans. Bernice does develop an agenda of her own, but her plans meet with no success, and her fear of Arahab keeps her, in the end, a kind of prisoner. Nia rarely questions what Mossfeaster asks of her and seems to have little personal motivation to perform the tasks he sets. It is only at the very end, when Nia debates returning to her family, that we see a glimpse of the person she was at the beginning of the story, and the decision she makes seems to take her further away from that version of herself. I wanted both Bernice and Nia, once human women, to recover a little more of their humanity toward the end of the book.
My only other quibble was with the passage of time in the novel. Other than a few time period cues given by the characters' clothing—as in one moment when Nia finds a pair of pants in a woman's drawer and wonders "if pants for women were coming into style" (p. 270)—I had little idea when the novel was set, or how much time had passed, for example, between the night of the murder and the time when Nia's stone casing started to crumble. Nia herself was somewhat adrift after coming out from the stone shell, so the lack of time cues helped me fall easily into her head. But I found myself occasionally wishing for more temporal anchors.
That said, the writing pulled me in past these small concerns. I've spent hardly any time in Florida, and Priest created a version of that state that is at least as real to me as anything factual I've read about the place. As Nia notes at one point, "She'd never seen the peculiar stretches of Florida that look like picture books of Africa. It was strange to her, the way it was dry except for the oil-dark puddles that stretched for acres, but felt so heavily wet to breath" (p. 334). Should I ever venture to Florida again, I would be unsurprised to find Bernice, Nia, or Mossfeaster between the ocean and the trees.
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