Review: Troubled Waters by Sharon Shinn

Troubled Waters by Sharon Shinn (Elemental Blessings #1)

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: Ace on May 10, 2010

Source: Library

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


In TROUBLED WATERS, Sharon Shinn introduces readers to a new fantasy realm rued by the elements and the families who control them. With a keen eye for detail, Shinn has crafted a deceptively simple-seeming world that grabbed my attention from the very first page and held it fast.

Zoe Aredlay has spent most of her life living with her beloved father in a remote village far from the intrigue of court life. So when her father dies and a court messenger arrives to proclaim that Zoe has been chosen as the King’s fifth wife in the span of two days, she understandably goes into a tailspin. Grief-stricken and barely aware of what’s going on around her, Zoe is shepherded to the capital by Darien Serlast, the King’s right-hand man…but when they arrive, she’s jolted out of her catatonic state and makes her escape. She may not be sure of what she wants, but she knows she doesn’t want to marry a stranger. Blending into the crowds of a city she and her father once called home, Zoe aims to re-take control of her life and find her direction.

As Zoe rediscovers her old home with fresh eyes and a new (significantly more impoverished) perspective, so do we as readers. I loved learning about the elemental blessings and how they govern life and personality: Zoe is a coru woman, the element of water, meaning that she is tenacious, passionate, and joyful. While blessings don’t necessarily determine someone’s personality, they’re treated with a reverence bordering on the religious. So it’s unsurprising that in times of trouble, Zoe is instinctively drawn to the banks of the Marisi River, the largest and fastest-flowing body of water in the realm. There’s a thriving subculture of transient people who live along its banks, pooling resources and forming a tight-knit community that helps Zoe heal in her time of grief. I was impressed with these scenes not only because they were creative and compelling, but also because its unusual for a fantasy novel to address homelessness or transience so thoroughly, and with such a balanced view.

Eventually though, Zoe must move into the heart of the city and the palace itself to discover the reason behind the King’s interest in her…and why Zoe and her father had to leave the city so hastily all those years ago. Of course, it turns out that Zoe is much more important than she was raised to believe, and her connection to the Marisi even more so. She’ll need all her allies to navigate the troubled waters of court life, drawing on some very unlikely sources. While this is primarily Zoe’s story of recovering from grief and making her own destiny, its her relationships with others that make TROUBLED WATERS so successful. Her relationship with her father after his passing is particularly noteworthy: Shinn does an admirable job showcasing how in the wake of someone’s death, truths about that person often come to light that make you reassess what you thought you knew about them. Shinn deftly handles the complexities of relationships between parents and children, friends, and siblings, and also writes an enjoyable and subdued romance for Zoe, all in this one story.

While there’s a lot going on here, I wouldn’t call it a particularly fast moving story. If you’re hoping for an action-packed story with epic battles and intense training scenes, you’ll want to look elsewhere. What TROUBLED WATERS delivers is rich world building and an introspective protagonist whose development is impressive, both emotionally and magically. My friend Stephanie from Don’t Be Afraid of the Dork would describe this as a “quiet read,” dreamy stories that may not be as fast-paced as some but still hold your attention. Recommended to anyone looking for a leisurely read with fantastic world building.

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