Troubled Waters. Sharon Shinn. New York: Ace Books, 2010, hardback, 392 pages, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01923-6.
Reviewed by David Emerson
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 49:4-5 (#357-358) in April-May 2012.]
This book was a finalist for the 2011 Mythopoeic Awards, which is why I picked it up in the first place. I had never heard of Sharon Shinn, much less read any of her works. When the novel started out set in a rural village of the kind that might appear in countless generic pseudo-medieval fantasy stories, I started to prepare myself for disappointment. However, I was pleasantly surprised. The world Shinn has built for this novel is distinctive. Even though certain elements can be seen to have obvious influences and predecessors, the way she has combined them is fresh enough to warrant the reader’s attention.
For one thing, the historical period in which the story is set seems to be closer to our Victorian age than to any pre-industrial era; although descriptions of any industry are slight and implicit, there are some machines, notably a kind of motorcar run by compressed gasses rather than by internal combustion. Thus, Shinn avoids the fairy-tale/epic fantasy stereotype while stopping just short of steampunk. For another, this is not really a world where magic per se exists; rather, the fantasy of this world is that it seems to be governed by five “elements” – earth, air, fire, water, wood. People are born with personalities associated with one element or another; events of people’s lives are described in terms of the elements; even the calendar year is divided into five seasons, each of which correlates to one of the elements. And society is dominated by five aristocratic families, each of which is even more tightly bound to one of the elements, so much so that the head of each family has a mastery of communication with and control over that element (e.g., the head of the air-related family can summon winds).
The plot centers around Zoe Ardelay, a 23-year-old woman recently bereft of her father, the only family she has known since fleeing with him into exile when she was a girl. Her life in the bucolic village is upended by the arrival of a motorized vehicle from the capital city, bearing a stern emissary who has come to take her to the palace of the king. Going from a rural peasant environment to a bustling city and the upper ranks of society is just one major life change in store for Zoe. But Shinn takes her there gradually, allowing Zoe to live a simple life in the city for a while before getting caught up in palace intrigue and political maneuverings among the movers and shakers of the country. This also allows the reader to get to know Zoe in more-or-less familiar surroundings, and to learn more of this land and its society so that we are prepared for the full impact of later events.
Sharon Shinn has an easy prose style, nicely balanced between description, action, exposition, dialogue, and inner thoughts, all suffused with a distinct warmth. Her plot has plenty of twists and turns, without seeming too contrived or convoluted. One of the strengths of her writing is that when the extraordinary gifts of element-based powers are being used, she describes what it feels like to the character using them, giving such scenes much more immediacy than simple wand-waving and spell-uttering. Another strength is her ability to create likeable characters; Zoe herself, of course, plus her friends and many of the people she meets. Even the schemers in the palace have their good points as well as bad. In fact, if I could point out a flaw in the book, it would be that perhaps too many characters are decent and good-hearted, especially in a big city and in the corridors of power. The only real villains are a few rarely-seen characters from a different country, whose ways seem decadent and immoral to the citizens of Welce.
Shinn has managed to weave together many different kinds of story into this one book. There is mystery, political drama, romance, coming-of-age, class-conscious social commentary, and a bit of magic. The world she has built is engaging enough for me to want to return to it. Although she has written several series (the Samaria series, the “Twelve Houses” series, etc.), Troubled Waters is, at least so far, a stand-alone novel. I wish she would write more in this fascinating setting.