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REVIEW: Troubled Waters by Sharon Shinn

Dear Ms. Shinn,

I have long been a fan of your Samaria series (Janine introduced me to it), but hadn’t read any of your books in several years. When I saw that you had a new book coming out that wasn’t part of an existing series, it seemed like maybe it was time to get reacquainted.

Zoe Ardelay has  recently buried her beloved father and is existing in a haze of grief when an opulent carriage appears in her small village; it contains Darien Serlast, envoy to the king. Zoe is summoned to the capital city (a place her father and thus she were banished from years before) to be wed to the king. She will be his fifth wife.

Troubled Waters By Sharon ShinnThus begins an intriguing new series that focuses on a world where people are born with particular elements that determine their personality and their strengths and weaknesses. Zoe is coru – of water and blood. Darien is hunti – wood and bone. Her elements mean that she’s restless, mercurial. His make him blunt and unyielding. The other ruling qualities are elay (air and soul), torz (earth and body) and sweela (fire and mind). I liked this aspect of the story and the way each quality had a double meaning – one related to the body and one to the larger world.

The people of this world believe that the elements needs to be in balance in order  for there to be harmony. Zoe begins to get an inkling of the power she holds when the capital city, stricken with drought for several seasons, is deluged  with rain upon her arrival. The journey and Zoe’s return to the place of her birth snaps her out of the worst of her grief, and she impulsively slips away from Darien shortly after their arrival, before she can be brought to the palace.

The first half of Troubled Waters is quite slow going. Zoe finds a place to live (of sorts), gets a job, makes some friends. But she’s honestly in a waiting period, and it affects the tempo of the story. It’s only in the second half of the book (well, maybe the second two-thirds; the first third probably felt longer than it was)  that the story kicks into gear and I got really involved. Ultimately, there’s a lot going on in the capital city  of  Chialto; once the action switches to the palace events evolve at a quick pace, as Zoe learns some secrets, including the one that led to her father’s banishment, and begins to really recognize her own extraordinary power.

The kingdom of Welce  is ruled by King Vernon, but his rule is heavily influenced by the primes – heads of the Five Families (a name I disconcertingly associate with the Mafia), each of whom correspond to one of the five elements. This part I found a little confusing, because it seems to suggest that each family is specifically associated with one of the elements (making a person’s element essentially genetic), but this didn’t seem to actually be the case. As far as I could tell, a sweela and a torz could produce, say, a coru. So I’m guessing that the elements are associated with specific families, and then the primes (the choosing of whom  is a somewhat mystical process) from those families have that element as “their” element, but it doesn’t mean everyone in the family necessarily does.

Other than my confusion over this aspect of the story, I found the world building fairly simple and straightforward. Welce seems akin to a pre-industrial age  country in most respects; the only technology found are the recently invented elaymotives (also called smokers) which are essentialy fairly primative automobiles invented by the Dochenzas, who are the ruling elay family. There is little information about other kingdoms, except for the neighboring kingdom of Soeche-Tas, whose people are called Soechins and who seem to be pretty creepy. It’s King Vernon’s desire for an alliance with the Soechins that begins the dramatic dénouement of the story. Zoe’s actions at this point in the story seemed pretty extreme to me. Though in the end they made a certain amount of sense, and things worked out okay (perhaps rather unrealistically), I was still left with the sense that Zoe is the sort of person you wouldn’t want to piss off, lest she go all Sissy-Spacek-as-Carrie on you.

Speaking of Zoe, it took me a while to warm to her; she is pretty numb through the early part of the book and thus, while she’s a sympathetic character, she’s not hugely compelling. I really liked the way she developed and came into her own as the story progressed, though. I particularly liked the way she made peace with her father’s flaws, which were numerous (and some of which she only learned about in the course of the story). And while her power intimidated me a bit, I also admired it. Zoe ultimately ends up being a rather kick-ass heroine, and who doesn’t like a kick-ass heroine?

Darien is a more conventional romance hero in a sense; he’s the  strong, silent type who intrigues precisely because he is so mysterious. In the end, I wish he’d unwound a little bit more than he did, but that’s just my personal preference for sturm und drang coming to the fore. At times I shared Zoe’s frustration with Darien’s attempts to manipulate and control her, but ultimately he has good reasons for behaving as he does and he proves his devotion to her admirably.

The best of your Samaria books have a quiet intensity that I really love. Troubled Waters felt more quiet and less intense to me. It’s not really the action or the characters but a quality in the writing that makes the book feel this way to me. I’m giving Troubled Waters a straight B.

Best regards,

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has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.


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    Oct 08, 2010 @ 12:28:31

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  2. rebyj
    Oct 08, 2010 @ 13:09:50

    This sounds good. I like Sharon Shinn’s world building and writing style. It does go slowly at times but that makes her books keepers and enjoyable re-reads for me. There’s always some nuance I missed on the first read that I catch later. I re-read the Samaria series once or twice a year.

  3. Janine
    Oct 08, 2010 @ 14:30:34

    I’d also give it a straight B. I didn’t love it like I do my favorite Shinn books (The angel Samaria series, Heart of Gold, Wrapt in Crystal, The Safe Keeper’s Secret, The Dream-Maker’s Magic, Dark Moon Defender, or the novella “Blood” in last year’s Quatrain), but I liked it a lot.

    I agree that the first third was slow, and I also thought the king’s wives weren’t as pleasant or interesting as some of the other characters and they got a lot of page space in this book. Also, the romantic relationship took a bit of a backseat to Zoe’s process of self-discovery and coming into her power.

    But I liked Zoe and Darien, despite their flaws, and I enjoyed some of the dramatic revelations in the second half. I also liked some of the cultural worldbuilding details Shinn included in the story, like the practice of taking three coins at random from little pools at the temples, where the coins all have blessings written on them.

    I agree with most of the points in your review. I would have recommended it for “DA Recommends for October” but I didn’t finish it in time for the deadline for that.

  4. Eva_baby
    Oct 08, 2010 @ 17:07:17

    I’m listening to this on audio right now and the I am actually enjoying the slow unfold of the first part (I am only about five chapters in) and that narrator’s voice works very well for the story.

    From the review, it sounds like the world building and the structure of the story feel a lot like her Summers at Castle Auburn, which was slow at first but kicked into high gear at the halfway point and was a great book overall.

    I am an unabashed SS fan and have read all of her stuff so I was stoked when I saw this coming out.

  5. Jennie
    Oct 08, 2010 @ 18:45:58

    @Janine – yes, I would’ve rec’d it too if I’d finished it in time. I find that Shinn’s books (“quiet” books in general, actually) are usually more than the sum of their parts for me. I’ve been thinking about it since I finished it, which is a good sign.

    I agree about the queens, though I did like the princesses and Zoe’s relationships with them.

    @rebyj – I agree about the nuance and depth. There were some details included early in the book that I just skipped over without thinking about, and only later realized the significance of. I think it’s neat when an author can do that; a lot of authors (even good ones) tend to put flashing lights around clues to later events so I can’t help but get that there’s something significant going on.

    @Eva_baby – I really listen to audiobooks rarely, but I can imagine Shinn’s writing would lend itself well to the format.

    I’ve always meant to read Summers at Castle Auburn – I’ve heard such good things about it. And I like the title – it feels very evocative.

  6. Tae
    Oct 10, 2010 @ 09:18:00

    Thanks for reviewing this. I love Sharon Shinn and living overseas I am out of the loop about which authors are coming out with books, so I often rely on you or Smart Bitches to tell me about some of my favorite authors and new releases

  7. Janine
    Oct 10, 2010 @ 17:05:49


    I agree about the queens, though I did like the princesses and Zoe's relationships with them.

    Yes, the stuff with the princesses was great. Those were some of my favorite scenes in the book.

  8. I’ve Been Reading… « Me and My Books
    Oct 22, 2010 @ 11:07:39

    […] Jennie's review @ Dear Author is pretty reflective of my thoughts, though I probably found Zoe more sympathetic from the start, and would grade the book a notch higher.  I would so love to read more stories set in this world, though we may have to wait longer as I think her next project is an urban fantasy (I am so curious about how this will pan out, I suspect it will be a very good read). […]

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