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Book Review: Troubled Waters by Sharon Shinn

Genre: Romance, High/Court Fantasy
Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: Ace Hardcover
Publication Date: October 5, 2010
ISBN-10: 0441019234
ISBN-13: 978-0441019236
Author Website: Sharon Shinn

Troubled Waters is a feel-good fantasy that will appeal to readers that abhor violence and love relational intrigue. Zoe Ardelay was raised primarily in a small village due to her father’s falling out with the king. But when her Pa dies, she is conscripted by the new royal advisor into becoming the King’s fifth wife. Not satisfied with her lot, Zoe runs away, but cannot run forever from her noble destiny.

Author Sharon Shinn posits a world based on paired elements. For Zoe, these are blood and water, giving her an affinity for both familial relationships and the power of water to nurture and to destroy. These pairings are static, and fall into five groupings. Those with an affinity for the trees tend to be of iron will; those akin to spirit are flighty and unpredictable, just as Zoe’s affinity for water makes her mutable but also nurturing.

Additionally, the world is dominated by a religion based in chance, where people pull blessings out of a barrel at significant times to find guidance in their lives. Other than these two elements, the setting is a standard Western medieval setting, with the addition of some mechanized wonders in the form of self-propelled stagecoaches. But this is minor and the stagecoaches seem to be the only non-traditional fantasy trope of this courtly drama.

The plot is broken into two sections. In the first, Zoe runs away and makes friends among the lower classes, along the way proving to the reader that she has both pluck and a sense of honor. It is, in essence, the coming-of-age story of many a first-of-a-series novel condensed into one half. The second section is the courtly drama, as Zoe comes into her inheritance, and finds herself thrust into the machinations of the King’s four wives as they vie for their children to inherit the throne. Zoe must endure endless carping among these women, in the meantime trying to unravel the mystery of an attempted murder o one of the princesses.

Overall, the plot is simplistic and comfortable, no twists, turns or surprises in store for the reader. It is easy to just settle back and let the narrative flow over you. In many ways, the tale is dull, unoriginal, and tiresome. If found myself skipping sections as it was evident what would happen next, even to the point of predicting the dialogue.

Shinn has a dialogue and internal monologue centric writing style. The story is told entirely from Zoe’s perspective, and what description there is mostly given over to describing clothing and jewelry, not the world itself, leading this reviewer to believe that the novel is targeted mostly at married women. The same women who enjoy a romance, prefer that their violence be whitewashed, and love to watch the subtle interplay of a (at first) antagonistic man and woman as they slowly fall in love with one another. I suspect that such women, as my own wife assures me, would like this novel, even if its appeal was only limited to me. It is a Christian historical novel with the history replaced by fantasy and the Christianity replaced by elemental forces. As a married man, its appeal was in its very prosaic tone after having read many a blood-drenched and/or genre bending novels. It was comfort food reading, the type that allows you to relax into the story easily.

Troubled Waters is a complete novel in itself. It is likely Shinn has more in the series planned, but it is possible to read this one all by its lonesome. The book will likely be popular with those same readers that first put Shinn on the NYT Bestseller list, and appeal to others looking for clean fantasy focused on relationships and prosaic themes. Troubled Waters will appeal to those who enjoy Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, Kristen Britain, or Jane Yolen.