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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  • Greg Hill

    Nice cover. And I love elemental based magic, generally. The blessings and the sound of that waterfront community are kind of a nice touch too. Thank God someone is writing fantasy that ‘s a little different (notwithstanding the father dying and her summoned to court lol), but everything else sounds well done, and the world building too sounds pretty fantastic. I’m definitely interested in this.

    • The covers for this series are beautiful! LOL too right, Shinn is definitely doing something a little different here (although you called it, there are definitely some old-school tropes to be found here as well) with the world building. The elemental magic really intrigued me and I look forward to seeing it developed more in the sequel, which I believe follows a minor character from this story.

  • I did like it, but not enough to read more :/

  • I really enjoy “quiet” stories now and then, especially when you have an author who writes well enough that you don’t miss all the action:-)

    • Me too, Tammy! “Quiet” stories are actually a pretty significant number of my favourites, and I find that they tend to be better written than their action-packed counterparts — maybe out of necessity, haha.

  • Hmmm I usually need tons of battles and action scenes to keep me invested in a story, but this does sound really cool!

    • The world building and characters in this are awesome, but I don’t think it’s your kind of story. All the battles are political/courtly, and the participants wield sharp tongues rather than swords.

  • The community aspect sounds nice, and you’re right, while I have read some fantasy books in which characters were homeless, it was never really addressed in a thorough or particularly realistic way that I can recall. It doesn’t surprise me this isn’t action-packed, from you review it sounds very character/relationship-focused. Glad you liked it!

    • It was really nice, and quite heartwarming too. I was really impressed that Shinn was able to show the softer side of living in a transient community but also didn’t gloss over the hardships that people experience, even in a borderline tropical fantasy world. Lately I’ve been craving well-written, slow-moving stories, so this was a great pick! 🙂

  • This sounds awesome. Sharon Shinn is an author I’ve heard of but never read anything by but your review for this one makes it sound like one I would enjoy. The world building sounds brilliant and although there are a lot of different elements to the story no single one seems to be weaker. I can definitely get behind a leisurely read like this one. I have to see if my library has a copy.

    • I’d heard tons about her too, but for some reason I never picked her stuff up before (which was a mistake no my part). The world building was awesome, and it actually has a semi fantasy-romance vibe going on, although the romance is more of a tertiary plot line. I think you’d love the world building. Fingers crossed that your library comes through!

  • The worldbuilding in this sounds wonderful, and that the author is tackling aspects you don’t usually see in fantasy books. I admit, I thought there would be more action, but quiet reads have their place. Wonderufl review, Danya!

    • As much as I enjoyed this one, it’s definitely not one you should reach for when you’re looking for a more action-packed read. The world building is seriously on point though, and I ended up loving all the characters…which is good, because the sequels will follow people other than Zoe!

      Thanks so much, Verushka! 🙂

  • Karen

    I’m not a huge fantasy reader but this seems more like my kind of read because of the introspection.

    Lovely review 🙂

    • A quiet,well-written and introspective read will always pique my interest regardless of genre! 🙂

  • I like my fantasy with lots of action, so while this sounds like it would be better for another reader, it was a great review! Tori @ In Tori Lex

  • This sounds really marvelous and wasn’t on my radar at all. Strong characters and relationships are my jam so the fact that Shin does these so well and that the focus is there is especially appealing. My one hesitation is that I sometimes get too sad about stories that include bereavement and grief. I think this sounds worth it though. Yay for quiet genre reads!!