Friday, January 13, 2012

On Elements: A Review of Troubled Waters by Sharon Shinn

My familiarity with Sharon Shinn's work goes way back. I was about 12 or 13 when I read Summers at Castle Auburn, which I dearly loved. I believe it's continued to shape my reading choices over the years.

Troubled Waters is set it's own fantasy world in which people have a special connection to elements. Specifically, each person is born to a heritage of sorts that effects their personalities and talents--water, air, wood, fire, and earth. Zoe, a young woman with an affinity for water, has spent most of her life in isolation with her father. When her father dies, she loses herself to grief. So, when one of the King's servants comes to collect her, claiming that she is to become the King's fifth wife, she hasn't the will to object. Upon reaching the city, however, Zoe impulsively flees--choosing to hide out with the homeless population by the riverfront. Thus begins Zoe's journey to finding herself, and discovering power stronger than anything she imagined.

Positive Comments

This book is not for everyone, for one simple reason: it's slow. Normally, that would be a complaint for me. In this case, I liked the meandering pace of the plot. It allowed Zoe to think and feel, gradually growing into her power and her place in life. It also gives the reader a chance to understand the culture of the world Shinn has created.

The world is interesting and easy to immerse yourself in. I liked learning about the elements, and the various traits that supposedly coincide with them. I enjoyed the idea of the Random Blessings--coins that people pick out of large barrels that more or less tell their fortune. I liked that the country seemed to be in it's industrial revolution, with steam powered vehicles just having been developed. Or perhaps this was meant as a steampunkish touch. Either way, I preferred the more civilized feel of the world, compared to the very Medieval feel that you see in a lot of high fantasy.

I like Zoe. She was a character who desperately needed to develop and rediscover herself in order to survive, and she did so beautifully. Zoe gets a chance at romance with Darien, the king's adviser. The romance helps to make Zoe's emotional journey even more palatable. While it's not the main focus of the novel, I enjoyed it.

Critical Comments

As I said above, it is a slow story. The conflict is driven by politics more than anything else. There was far less action and magic than I initially expected. The plot is simply unimpressive. The characters are great, the world is great, but nothing happens on a large enough scale to give it that final boost into Epic Story territory.

That's the only down side to this book, but unfortunately, it's a big one. I liked this book, and I want to recommend it, but I'm compelled to throw in a word of caution as well. If you like your fantasy novels to be slow and character driven, read this book. If your looking for something with big action, big magic, impressive plot twists, stay away. 3.5 stars.

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