Zoe Ardelay has spent the last 12 years living in exile and poverty with her father. She’s known that her father, a member of the Five Families that help rule Welce under the king’s guidance, used to be King Vernon’s top advisor, but then fell out of favor and was forced to leave the capital city and seek refuge in a distant village. Now, stricken with grief at her father’s passing, she is shocked to see an expensive coach pull into the village, and an unknown stranger step down, announcing that she has been chosen to be King Vernon’s fifth wife. Swept away before she can make a decision, she escapes from Darien once the coach makes its way back to Chialto and seeks refuge amongst the city’s homeless. After a series of events makes it clear that Zoe is actually the heir to one of the Five Families, she claims her heritage and is forced into a world of political intrigue that may be the death of her, and of everyone around her.
Like much of Sharon Shinn’s writing, Troubled Waters is character-driven fiction with fantastical and romantic elements. Shinn has created a world that is completely believable and magical at the same time. The system of magic is based on the five elements (air, wood, fire, water and earth) and the five parts of the body (soul, bone, mind, blood and flesh). Everyone in this world is born with an affinity for one of the five element/body combinations, and it influences their personality and, for the Primes of each of the Five Families, gives them additional powers over their elements. With this creation of what is primarily a system of personality, Shinn has created a unique take on elemental magic systems. When combined with the almost tarot-like blessings tradition, I felt like I was reading something original and creative. Additionally, I appreciate that Shinn has thought out the limitations of the system and has explained why the Five Families have not overthrown the monarchy and installed themselves as rulers.
Layered upon this is an intriguing culture that feels like a blend of the start of industrial Europe blended with heavy Silk Road influences. The attention to detail in how the five elements are represented throughout cultural norms of dress, décor and architecture gives a depth to the magical system, instead of feeling grafted on as is the case in many fantasy novels.
Shinn truly shines with her characters. In classic Shinn style, there is a romantic element to this story, though it does not overwhelm the other aspects of the story. Zoe is a complex character who has to deal with a lot of unwelcome information and responsibilities. Zoe is a water person, and her water nature is evident in how she responds to problems. She is usually calm and placid, seeking multiple routes around problems. She is willing to travel whatever path is in front of her, but when she needs to, she can overwhelm anything in her way through sheer force of power. Darien is wood, and is as firm and immovable as a deeply-rooted tree. These two completely different personalities try to work together to deal with the problems that arise, neither one trusting the other or their approach to problems. Competing agendas don’t just get swept away because of love; Zoe doesn’t fall in thrall to the big powerful man, and Darien doesn’t get eroded and worn away by the force of Zoe’s will. They have to negotiate a relationship on an uneasy foundation, and watching them do that is a delight. I was also impressed with the complexity of Zoe’s responses to the many revelations about her beloved father and the reasons for their exile. The authenticity of her reactions to learning about her father as a man rather than just a beloved parent is recognizable to anyone who has learned to know his or her parents as persons instead of just parents. Zoe and Darien play against a robust crop of secondary characters, each well thought out and lovingly crafted.
I loved Troubled Waters the way I haven’t loved a book in a long time. I actually went back through my reviews to check, and the last time I was this emotionally satisfied with a book was with Shinn’s Archangel. I kept smiling while I was reading, not because the book is happy, but because it is so good. I laughed out loud in places, I gasped in others, I held my breath and found myself gripping the book tightly in yet other places. This book is going on my short list for best book of the year. It is obviously the first book in a series, and I am so excited to see where Shinn will take the story next.