Troubled Waters, by Sharon Shinn

>> Thursday, March 03, 2011

TITLE: Troubled Waters
AUTHOR: Sharon Shinn

PAGES: 400

SETTING: Fantasy world
TYPE: Fantasy romance
SERIES: It seems to be a stand-alone

REASON FOR READING: Autobuy author

The author of the Twelve Hours series welcomes readers to a new fantasy world, where the elements rule.

Zoe Ardelay receives astonishing and unwelcome news: she has been chosen to become the king's fifth wife. Forced to go to the royal city, she manages to slip away and hide on the shores of the mighty river.

It's there that Zoe realizes she is a coru prime ruled by the elemental sign of water. She must return to the palace, not as an unwilling bride for the king, but a woman with power in her own right. But as Zoe unlocks more of the mysteries of her blood-and the secrets of the royal family-she must decide how to use her great power to rise above the deceptions and intrigue of the royal court.
Zoe Ardelay has lived all her life in a tiny village, only she and her father. She knows that years and years ago, when she was a child, they lived a very different life in the capital city, where her father was influential and well-connected. Then something -she has no clear idea what- went wrong, and he father was exiled.

Now her father is dead, and their previous life has come calling. No sooner has she buried her father, than Darien Serlast, adviser to the King, rolls into town in his eye-popping self-driven carriage. He's there simply to collect Zoe and take her to the capital, because she is to become the King's fifth wife.

I don't want to give too much of the plot away, as a big part of the fun for me was about not knowing where the book was going. Suffice it to say, Zoe is no submissive little girl ready to obey the King's wishes. I expected that, but the way she went about discovering who she really is and what she can do and seizing control of her life was quite surprising.

I always have the same feeling with Sharon Shinn's books. I just sink into them and wallow. I don't care if things move slowly, I'm usually enjoying exploring the world too much to care.

And there was quite a lot to explore here. Troubled Waters is set in a completely new world, one where the elements are paramount. People are ruled by them, and the element they identify with is the one that describes their personality. The impression I got is that this is as hereditary as, say, having hair of a particular colour. You're more likely to be coru (water / blood), as Zoe is, if one of your parents was, but you could very well turn out to be something else.

The way the elements were integrated into the story was really interesting. It reminded me a bit of the way Bujold did religion in her Chalion series, in which it's something that's not just a philosophical system, but something that sometimes also manifests tangibly in real life. Things like drawing blessings, for instance, where if you're uncertain, or in need of guidance or advice, you pick a tile out of a large basket containing tiles with all the characteristics associated with the different elements. These have a way of being true in this world, it's not just like fortune cookies! But at the same time, the paranormal is a very subtle presence here. It's clear it exists, and no one is that shocked when someone displays powers, but it's not particularly common or all pervading, which just made things more interesting.

And this is just the belief system of this world. There's history and politics and technology, and all sorts of other things, including an extremely vivid setting, which I could always picture perfectly in my mind.

There's also an interesting story being told. It does start a bit slowly, with a lot of the day to day of Zoe's life when she arrives at the capital, but as I've alluded to above, I didn't care one whit. I enjoyed this bit just as much as I did the rest of the book, once the action gets much more exciting.

Whatever the action, the focus is very much on Zoe finding out who she is and what she can do, and about her understanding who her father was and accepting that he had his failings. She needs to take her place in her family, but she also needs to do this on her own terms. It's all about Zoe coming of age, something her temperament (she can be quite volatile and changeable) doesn't make easy.

At times, though (and this is the reason why this is a B+, not an A) it felt like there wasn't much of a sense of risk, I always got the feeling Zoe knew exactly what she was doing and that whatever she chose would turn out well for her. Even when she becomes part of the court, walking into a situation that was full of perils and treacherous possibilities, she handles herself as if she's had years of experience. But she grew up in a little village, with a father who never really talked about the past! Where would she have learnt to handle court intrigue so well? A combination of dumb luck and good intuition, I guess, but that's a bit unsatisfying.

There's a bit of romance here as well, which I liked ok, but didn't love, possibly because of the same lack of uncertainty and risk I described above. It was always obvious that Zoe was going to end up Darian, and actually, not just to the reader. I got the feeling throughout the book that they both knew that perfectly well from the first moment. Not only that, I got the feeling that she knew he knew and that he knew she knew, if that makes sense. The thing is, the romance was not the point of the book, and I got the feeling they both knew that as well. It's all about the self-discovery, so it makes sense that any proper development of the romance needed to be a bit on hold until that was on its way to being sorted out.

Even with those imperfections, Troubled Waters was a very enjoyable book. I'm looking forward to Shinn's next.



Anonymous,  3 March 2011 at 17:19  

I really enjoyed this one too! I was hoping that it would be the start of a new series for her -- that there would be a book about a character who identifies with each element. Seems reasonable! :)

Anonymous,  3 March 2011 at 17:19  

That comment above was from jennie from jenniesbooklog -- I thought I logged in with my blogger account but I guess it didn't take!

rosario001,  5 March 2011 at 08:04  

Hi Jennie! I was hoping the same thing as I read it, but theres seems to be no sign of that. Her next one, as far as I can tell, is going to be urban fantasy, something called The Shape of Desire, coming out next autumn. But who knows, maybe there'll be something after that. Seems like a waste of so much great world-building, otherwise!

Li,  6 March 2011 at 16:39  

I think we had pretty much the same reactions to this book - I really liked it, and loved the whole elemental magic system, though I can see how others could feel it was a bit heavy-handed.  I also agree on the lack of risk in the book - I never really felt that Zoe was in danger at any point during the story.

Re the romance, I think you got it spot on when you said this:
<span>I got the feeling throughout the book that they both knew that perfectly well from the first moment. Not only that, I got the feeling that she knew he knew and that he knew she knew, if that makes sense.</span>

And I actually liked that about the romance, that it wasn't there to create conflict, but more of a certainty and source for strength, if that makes sense?

rosario001,  7 March 2011 at 06:30  

Li: You know, it does. Yes, the lack of uncertainty in the romance meant that particular element wasn't that exciting, but I thought that was good for the book as a whole, because the romance wasn't what it was about. Completely agree!

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