Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Squarely in the average range (399 pages)
Publication: October 5, 2010 from Ace Books
Premise: Zoe Ardelay is still in the early hours of mourning for her father when a royal envoy arrives, saying that she must come to the royal city to become the king's fifth wife. She goes along on the trip because she must, but soon finds herself learning more than she ever expected about the city, the kingdom, and her own identity.
Warnings: implications that another country practices pervasive pedophilia
Recommendation: If you particularly like elemental magic or court intrigue on a smaller scale, this one might be fun; it does a good job of building the country's culture, though it takes a while to get moving.
I'd say that there's a minor spoiler about Zoe's identity in both sections, but it's printed on the back flap of the book, so don't worry unless you're an absolute purist about what you know in advance.
What makes this one flow together:
Sharon Shinn manages the rare trick of building a culture that feels fairly European while also making it different from the standard fare. Citizens and traders and royalty and nobles occupy their usual places in the kingdom of Welce, but there's no overarching church-- instead, people adhere to element-based spirituality that trends into superstition at times. People find themselves drawn to one of the five elements of air, wood, fire, water, and earth as they grow up. Their affiliation tends to fall along the lines of their parents but is also partly dependent on the random blessings drawn in the fifth hour after their birth. Parents go to temple and draw engraved metal discs for blessings like honor, change, loyalty, charm, or wealth-- each blessing is associated with an element, and each is thought to prove itself true over the course of the child's life. These beliefs make themselves subtly known on almost every page, with people calling a redheaded woman "sweela (fire) through and through" or debating romantic matches based on which elements make good pairs for each other. It comes off as a realistic way for people to see something that's not quite a religion, but still more serious than superstition-- some believe in drawing blessings even to make hiring decisions, and some fall back on this system despite being skeptical, which makes this ring true.
The elemental system has time to sink into the reader's consciousness before the secondary pairing and magic come out to play, and that keeps the system from getting old. Air is linked with soul, wood with bone, fire with the mind, water with blood, and earth with flesh. Each element is also associated with a powerful aristocratic family, and the primes of those families can magically influence or control their elements. Zoe has one brilliantly written scene of stopping the great river Marisi in its course to save someone on it from drowning-- Shinn pulled out all the stops here, and it's easy to see why primes are both valued and warily respected. The magic turns more sinister when Zoe experiences a surge of extreme temper and nearly pulls all the blood in her adversary's body to the surface and out; another prime stops her by threatening to shatter her bones. This linkage demonstrates that the primes have power over both the external world and the internal workings of humanity-- that both allows for versatile magic and contributes to the subtle spirituality. Magic in this realm, like its people's beliefs, is comfortably intuitive to follow.
Having such a smoothly-run world makes the character interactions slot in nicely. People are interesting and flawed in part according to their elemental blessings, so it's easy to start expecting that a given person will react in one way and not another. In places those guesses are right, but in others they make for truly excellent red herrings and wrong guesses. Zoe is a coru woman, ruled by water and acting on impulse, so she makes understandable leaps that turn out to be wrong, or to hurt people, or leave her overlooking something important. The kingdom is unsteady because the king hasn't chosen one of his three daughters as heir yet, so different factions are jockeying for approval, seeking to sway the king's choice. Some refuse to stop at persuasion and try to stage attacks on the young princesses to eliminate the competition. This leads to a well-balanced mix of concern for their lives and political calculations about who is most likely to be behind the attacks. Such calculations are given extra zest because the wives themselves could be involved; the eldest wife is thought to be barren, but the three younger ones each have a daughter and might be willing to go to great lengths to ensure their child's future. The wives have been sparring for years, with Elidon's (the eldest wife) role as the king's trusted adviser helping to balance the disadvantage of her childlessness.
Their household struggle is easy to dismiss when it's composed of cutting remarks over the breakfast table, but it ripples in and out; their animosity can point to restlessness or even treason in the kingdom, and it becomes all the more complicated when we start to learn why the king hasn't declared an heir. This whole arc is set up quite delicately through Darien Serlast, the king's most trusted adviser. He is the one initially sent to retrieve Zoe from the village where she and her father have been hiding as well as the one assigned to help her adjust to palace life. He is a man of wood and bone, utterly unyielding- for his whole life, he has drawn nothing but hunti (wood/bone) blessings at the temple. Zoe doesn't dig in her heels in the same way, but she's capable of flowing with all the persistence of water and wearing away at him. They come to an understanding that he may have to lie to her or conceal things, but he will confirm whether or not he is lying about a specific thing if she asks. It makes for a sharp-edged friendship of sorts-- they are drawn to each other and would clearly like to be together, but they're both committed people who can't give in to each other completely, and that helps it feel like a real relationship between adults.
The red pen:
The largest problem with Troubled Waters is almost certainly its pacing. Zoe's shift from deep mourning into recovering curiosity works, but she seems to be more or less spinning her wheels during that transition. The narrative throws in some great details about the city's construction and how the ordinary people live, but it also goes on for mind-numbing pages about what she bought at the market or what it's like to work in a shop while she gets her bearings. Some of that space is used well, like when Zoe is asked to help draw blessings for a newborn and thus fleshes out these beliefs more fully, but too much of it is spent on things that would fit better in a non-magical book about a young working girl trying to make her way in the word. She establishes friendships with other people down by the rive, earns her employers' trust, is set up to be caught if she's dishonest, and does very little but gather information and live the least demanding life she can while she decides what to do. This could work, but it becomes frustrating when she's so close to the best knots of intrigue and picking things up in bits and pieces.
When the plot finally does accelerate to show the significance of Zoe's coru heritage, it does so while requiring very little initial effort her. She gets to the place that has been waiting for her to appear, takes up power, and doesn't even have to deal with any resentment from the family she hasn't seen in years. She suddenly has money, power, and influence without having to demonstrate much more than a willingness to be open to her family, and the only one who appears in more than a scene or two is quick to become her best friend. It's moving to watch the power in her blood recognize close relatives, but there's not much zest to these interactions otherwise. In a way, her initial assumption of power is more grating than the day-to-day recounting of events in the city at first-- she's able to pay back old favors and reward her friends in ways that range from somewhat predictable to outright cheesy. Taken as a whole, this segment is a little tempting to skim until she's back in Chialto and dabbing in intrigue firsthand.
Zoe's adjustment to life among the powerful absolutely has its moments, but in some places it's hard to figure out why something makes sense. She's expected to spend time with the king's wives as she adjusts to her new position, but for some reason she spends far less time with the other primes, who could teach her about her powers and responsibilities. Even once she's met them, she finds herself not knowing that she had a certain magical gift that the previous coru prime did, or even something as basic as the fact that the primes have private meetings with envoys and the kings so that they can give advice about how to govern until the meeting actually starts. Given how much fuss is made over her taking up her role, it seems odd that she's so uninformed; becoming the coru prime may bring the kingdom into balance and allay fears of drought because rain seems to follow her, but she's also a political figure and magical threat, and those aspects seem to fall neglected while she engages to daily meetings with the wives for reasons that aren't entirely clear.
It's hard to critique the romance when it's not really the central element of the story, but it's oddly paced all the same. Darien and Zoe have a little chemistry at first, but he's terse and they tend to mostly discuss business or plans or keeping people safe, so they move from two people with the potential for romance to suddenly kissing or ready to get together, skipping the middle relationship stages that are normally so interesting to read. It comes off as sticking a few chemistry-laden scenes in to set the way and then just tossing the two together because it's obvious that they ought to be, and that runs counter to the delightfully changeable coru nature that Zoe exhibits elsewhere. There was room to explore more of their dueling stubbornness, but something just feels missing by the end.
On the whole, Troubled Waters can be a lot of fun, but it uses space oddly, spending what feels like ages on small details that don't matter later or low-level social sniping that seems like it would fit best in a novel set in high school. Once the story finds its feet, though, it presents a compelling picture of land based on balance that is ever-so-slightly out of balance and needs to be fixed. Odds are good that I'll read further in the series as it progresses, especially given that it seems like the books will be progressing through the elements and that these won't require much of a backstory refresher before reading further.
Prospects: This is the first book in the Elemental Blessings series, soon to be followed by Royal Airs. It comes out on November 5th this year and will cover the adult lives of the princesses Josetta and Corene.
Enjoyed this? Try:
~Shinn has written two other major series. If you like this one, your best bet is probably the Twelve Houses series, which has a reasonably solid magic system and quite a bit of political scheming, though some of the middle volumes can be hit-or-miss. Her Samaria series is more overtly spiritual and dabbles more in technology, though all of her stuff has a similar romantic thread.