Troubled Waters: Going on my short list for best book of the year

fantasy book reviews Sharon Shinn Troubled Watersfantasy book reviews Sharon Shinn Troubled WatersTroubled Waters by Sharon Shinn

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.

~Ruth Arnell


Troubled Waters is a really lovely high fantasy novel; I liked it almost as much as my favorite (so far) Sharon Shinn book, Summers at Castle Auburn. Zoe is the daughter of a once-powerful man in the kingdom of Wence, who has been in hiding in a small village for ten years after falling from the king’s favor. As the story begins, Zoe’s father has just died, and the king’s closest advisor, Darien Serlast, arrives in town with the announcement that Zoe has been chosen as the king’s fifth wife. Zoe, numb with grief and shock, allows Darien to take her to the capital city, but once there she slips away from Darien at an opportune moment and goes into hiding once again. But life, of course, has more in store for Zoe.

There are five powerful families in the kingdom, each gifted with a particular affinity to one of the five elements: air (soul), fire (mind), water (blood), earth (flesh), and wood (bone). The leader of each family, the prime, is gifted with extraordinary gifts and powers relating to their element. And Zoe discovers she is the coru, or water/blood, prime, since her grandmother died several years ago. (Not a spoiler; this is in the book’s blurb.)

It was interesting to read about a society tied so closely to the idea of the elements and their powers. Most people in this society doesn’t have magical powers (just the five primes, I think), but everyone carries traits of one of these elements, sometimes with an aspect of another element as a secondary part of their personality, kind of like we categorize people’s personalities in our society by color, or whatever.

The story contains a heart-warming romance that develops slowly and believably, but doesn’t ever take over the plot to the exclusion of everything else.

She could not resist leaning into him just a little, just to feel his reassuring strength against her shoulder. “But that is my point exactly,” she said. “Who I am now and who I seemed to be then are two very different people.”

“Not so different that I cannot recognize you,” he said. “No matter how much you change, you will always be familiar to me.”

There’s also quite a bit of intriguing and conniving once Zoe takes her place in high society. Most of all, this is a coming-of-age story — even though Zoe is already about 23 years old as the story begins — as she gradually discovers who she is as a person, and what she wants from life.

Troubled Waters is highly recommended for those who enjoy fantasy that’s on the quieter side, and maybe even for those who don’t normally read fantasy but appreciate well-told tales.

~Tadiana Jones

Troubled Waters — (2010) Publisher: 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.

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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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3 comments

  1. This sounds amazing, Ruth. I really need to give Shinn a try.

  2. Thanks, Ruth! Putting on my list…

  3. I’ll have to put it on my list.

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