Sharon Shinn‘s TROUBLED WATERS is about Zoe Ardelay, a gifted woman in the spheres of water and blood. In her world, there are five elements — earth, air, fire, water, and wood/bone. Note that the spirit element is not given pride of place as an element of its own in TROUBLED WATERS; instead, it is grouped with air for reasons that escaped me (but I’m sure Ms. Shinn understood full well).
I mention all of this because the fact that Zoe is gifted in water and blood makes her a Coru woman, with all the strength of the water element plus the ability to distinguish who’s related to whom by the mere touch of her hand. That she’s an important person is obvious from the start though Zoe knows it not because her father, Navarr, has kept her from both the knowledge she should have (as he’s Sweela, or the fire/mind element) and from most of her relatives because he wanted her all to herself and thought this was the only way to do it.
The book starts out with Navarr Ardelay newly dead, and Zoe not knowing what to do. Navarr was a powerful personality, you see, and had more or less subsumed his daughter into an extension of his own personality for years. (She’s twenty-three as this novel opens, but acts more like she’s in her mid-to-late teens.) Zoe’s grief for her father leaves her open to many things, so perhaps it’s fortunate — for her, at least — that the first person who finds her is Darien Serlast, a Hunti man (one of the folks who identify with wood and bone the best, and are both dogmatic and practical by nature) who is one of the King’s top advisors. Darien is taken with Zoe from the start, though once again she isn’t aware of it.
(Note it took a great deal of skill for Ms. Shinn to get these two things across without her point-of-view character Zoe being able to even form a coherent thought for a good fourth of the book, so I applaud her for that, and think she did a very good job with the type of plot she ended up needing to construct in order to tell Zoe’s tale properly. But I digress.)
Things start to heat up when Zoe goes missing in an “accidentally-on-purpose” way. She encounters many people in the capitol city that she hadn’t expected, people poorer than she believes herself to be (remember, her father did not tell her the truth about anything, so this is a major plot point), and drifts from one adventure to the next until her mind kicks back in somewhere around the year-mark of her father’s passing.
Zoe, though she’s been drifting and “just existing” as she, herself, puts it, has been finding out many things. For example, her Lalinder relatives (all Water signs, or Coru like she is) have been without a Prime — or a ruler — for the last few years since her Grandmother Christara passed on. This puzzles her, so she travels to her grandmother’s seat in order to find out what’s going on.
Of course, this being a coming of age novel, we know Zoe has an important role to play — all this drifting she’s done can’t be the entirety of her life. And where does the dashing Darien Serlast come in, especially since she can’t stop thinking about him or talking about him?
I enjoyed TROUBLED WATERS for its honest depiction of how a grieving young woman restores herself and forges a new life for herself, but was frustrated that it took nearly a full half of the book to figure out who, exactly, Zoe is supposed to be. I also thought that Darien Serlast needed to be much more open with Zoe from the beginning — the main reason she goes missing when she gets to the capitol city is because she doesn’t trust him even though she’s drawn to him, and it turns out both of her feelings (odd and contradictory though they were) are right — in order to get past a lot of stuff that, to my mind, didn’t need to be there.
All that being said, it’s an enjoyable way to spend two or three hours of your time, though this book isn’t anywhere near as good as her THE SAFE-KEEPER’S SECRET, THE DREAM-MAKER’S MAGIC, or THE TRUTH-TELLER’S TALE (all set in a different magical universe). It’s also not as much fun as her earlier, stand-alone novels JENNA STARBORN or THE SHAPE-CHANGER’S WIFE.
In conclusion, if you like fantasy, and you like coming of age tales, and you enjoy books that are dreamy, a little out of focus, and take quite a while to develop before finally sharpening nicely, you’ll enjoy TROUBLED WATERS.
But if you’re expecting a quick read, skip this book and go for anything else Ms. Shinn has ever put out, as this one has to be the slowest of all of them to make up its mind as to what it, exactly, really is.