Title: Troubled Waters (Elemental Blessings, #1)
Author: Sharon Shinn
Rating: 5 Stars
It takes only one line of a Sharon Shinn novel to hook me. Ever since reading Archangel earlier last year, I've known that Shinn was an author I'd be re-visiting; an author whose backlog I'd be pouring through dutifully and savoring as the years pased by. While I enjoyed Archangel immensely, the distasteful covers of the entire Samaria Series prevented me from picking them off the shelves of my library. A shameful excuse, I know. Shinn, and the genre of Adult Fantasy, in fact, had dropped off my radar until the release of Shinn's latest novel, Royal Airs. With its bright, friendly cover, I immediately wanted to dive into it. If only I had known that I would fall in love with its predecessor, Troubled Waters, perhaps I might have requested it from my library sooner.
Troubled Waters begins with the death of Zoe's father and the consequent arrival of transportation from the palace where the king has demanded that Zoe become his fifth wife. Zoe, now an orphan, leaves without complaint, too shocked with grief to protest. Nearing the palace, however, Zoe runs away, escaping her fate as the fifth wife of an older king, and finding her true place in the world. In Shinn's universe, newborn infants are given three blessings at birth. Normally, their blessings align with the element they will come to identify with; water, air, wood, earth, and fire. While Troubled Waters lacks a distinct plot line, meandering through politics, action, and self-discovery, it chronicles Zoe's adventures in finding the three blessings she was originally given during her birth: beauty, power, and love.
The world of Elemental Blessings is one of those few fantasy realms I wouldn't hesitate to live in. Admittedly, the palace politics is a messy affair, but the traditions of this world have charmed me. From the serene actions of selecting blessings and using them as guidance to the representations that elements hold over an individual's soul, Shinn's world is richly developed and impossible to walk away from. Its hold over my both my brain and my heart is astounding, but ultimately unsurprising. After all, this is a realm where elemental magic rules side-by-side with innovations from the time period of the Industrial Revolution. Even beyond the world-building, however, it is Shinn's characters which force her novels to transcend the boundaries of their genre. All of her characters, even those which originally seem insignificant, are artfully developed and explored, their flaws brought to light right alongside their strengths as they enhance the scope of the story.
Was her existence so empty of meaning that any opportunity, however remote, suddenly lent it contour and substance, no matter how imaginary? She had no desire to be a tradesman's wife. She wasn't even sure what desires she did possess; her future still looked blank to her when she tried to peer into its shadowy corridors.
Zoe, our protagonist and narrator, is a heroine I was rapidly able to get behind. When we first meet her, she is grieving her father, the man who raised her after her mother passed away and whose vivacity and intelligence fueled Zoe's own quick mind. As such, it isn't difficult to sympathize with Zoe and the pain she feels upon being jostled into a vehicle, transporting her away from her former life and the body of her father. While Zoe gradually heals and moves on from her loss, however, her true personality begins to seep through. Zoe is clever, able to hold her own against the scheming wives of the king; fierce, determined to survive despite the odds against her; stubborn, refusing to yield her independence to anyone; and flawed, too. As her blessings foretold, Zoe comes into power, rather unexpectedly, but wielding that power is a challenging task. Even when Zoe utilizes her power without noble intentions, though, she remains a morally strong woman.
The world of Elemental Blessings places women in positions of power - almost as often as it raises men into these holdings - and, moreover, features LGBT characters. Troubled Waters manages to be both diverse and feminist, empowering Zoe as a heroine while introducing individuals from opposing societal hierarchies, sexual preferences, and parts of the world. Nevertheless, despite these favorable points, Troubled Waters truly won me over in terms of its romance. First and foremost, it is a slow-burn romance which, as we all know by now, is my favorite. I relished the gradual simmer of this love story and, by the end, my cheek bones ached from smiling for so long. Yet, what sets this romance apart from most is the fact that it is just as volatile as it is caring. Zoe and her love interest bicker all the time about politics, the state of the kingdom, or Zoe's abilities. It's a constant back-and-forth of either interrogation or defense, which may seem odd, but manages to work perfectly for these two strong-willed characters. Especially as, when all is said and done, they still care deeply for one another.
"That's because there is a natural contrariness to you that seems to have been designed specifically to drive me mad," Darien replied.She laughed out loud. "Oh, no, I don't think of you at all when I am trying to determine my next course of behavior."He smiled in return. "I find that I do not believe you," he replied. "I am convinced you think of me a great deal of the time."It annoyed her that this was true, so she snapped, "Only when I'm feeling spiteful."His smile widened. "As I said. For I am certain you are feeling spiteful more days than not."He made her want to laugh; he made her want to scowl and stomp from the room. Instead, she threw her hands in the air and shook her head and did not reply.
Admittedly, Troubled Waters may not live up to the mark of truly classic fantasy fiction, but it is vividly memorable, its characters wildly entertaining, and their journeys - both physical and psychological - will sweep you off your feet. I, for one, will certainly be re-reading Troubled Waters whenever I'm in the mood for brilliant, resilient characters who are determined to find themselves, despite the turmoil around them. (Not to mention the utterly swoon-worthy romance!)