Zoe Ardelay was raised by her father, a former advisor to Welce’s King Vernon. She remembers little of her family’s life at the court in Chialto, and she is unsure as to why or how her father fell from favor. Raised in relative isolation, she knows little of the politics of her homeland’s capitol or her late mother’s family. When her father dies, his secrets are not revealed, and her grief is unbearable. Then a messenger from the capitol arrives with a life-changing message: Zoe Ardelay is to accompany him to Chialto, where she will become the king’s fifth wife.
With her life in disarray and her future uncertain, Zoe makes the journey with the messenger, a man named Damien Serlast, a powerful advisor to the king. Still in the throes of grief, Zoe reveals little to Damien, and outwardly presents herself as receptive to the king’s overtures. Inside, however, she’s plotting her escape, and when the pair arrives at Chialto, Zoe takes advantage of an unexpected stop and flees, settling in a tent community on the banks of the Marisi River. Adjusting to the bustling city takes some time, but she quickly makes friends who assist her and help her settle in to her new life. But Zoe soon begins to notice strange and unexpected powers and abilities, including a natural affinity for water. This affinity for water comes from the coru blood passed on to Zoe from her mother’s family, the Lalindars, whom she has lost touch with over the years. As her mother’s legacy reveals itself, Zoe finds herself with more power than she could have ever imagined—power that she can use to shape her future.
Shinn’s world-building is fantastic as always. The country of Welce has its own calendar, monetary system, government, and customs, and there’s a “sort-of familiar but not quite” feel to it all. The descriptions of the plazas and the people were vivid and easy to imagine. One of the biggest obstacles non-fantasy readers may find when reading a fantasy novel is getting into the world and understanding what’s going on. Shinn makes this task intuitive—you may not know what a quintile is, but you can figure it out pretty easily based on the context.
It’s the detail of Shinn’s worlds that makes them sing, though. Her description of random blessings—a Welce custom that begins when a baby is born and continues through his or her life—made me want to visit a temple and choose blessings of my own. According to Welce custom, the parents of a newborn baby are to find three strangers on the street, and these strangers choose random blessings from a vat of imprinted coins at a local temple. These blessings guide, inspire, and inform the child’s life. The Welce also visit temples throughout their lives to choose random blessings, and there are many scenes in Troubled Waters where blessings are chosen and interpreted by various characters.
While there are certainly strong romantic elements in this novel (though not so strong as some of Shinn’s other novels), Troubled Waters is primarily a novel of royal court politics and intrigue, with a little adventure mixed in. Zoe does find love, but she also finds autonomy and power.
My sole complaint about this book: the ending (including the romantic resolution) comes off as rushed. There’s a lot going on in Zoe’s world, and the resolution is almost a little too tidy. This minor flaw aside, Shinn has written yet another engrossing novel with a fascinating setting and a strong central female character. Though her Web site describes Troubled Waters as a stand-alone novel, I still hope there will be a return to Welce in the future.
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