Sunday, May 29, 2011

THOUGHTS on: Sharon Shinn's "Troubled Waters"

Title: “Troubled Waters”
Author: Sharon Shinn
Series: n/a
Genre: Fantasy, Romance
I love Sharon Shinn's writing – in particular, I love her style of prose, and her style of world-building. “Troubled Waters” was no different – the prose is gorgeous, and the world is beautifully crafted. Although it's not one of my favourite books by Shinn [1], I definitely enjoyed reading it.
For the past ten years, Zoe Ardelay has lived in exile with her father, Navarr Ardelay, a brilliant and passionate sweela man who was formerly a favourite advisor of the King. “Troubled Waters” opens with Navarr's funeral, and Zoe deep in grief, unsure of what to do with her future. Her decision is made for her, however, by Darien Serlast, an advisor to the King who arrives at her village with summons. Zoe is to come to Chialto to become the King's fifth wife. Events do not unfold exactly as planned, however, and eventually Zoe finds herself surrounded by unexpected truths about her father, why he was exiled, her mother's family, the royal succession, and even unexpected truths about herself.
Since I love Shinn's world-building, I'll talk about that first. Nearly every aspect in the world portrayed in “Troubled Waters” is driven by a superstitious system of random blessings. These are blessings fall into five categories, each associated with i) a natural element, and ii) a human element: there is elay (air/soul), hunti (wood/bone), sweela (fire/mind), coru (water/blood), and torz (earth/flesh)[2]. The seasons and colours are organized according to these categories, and people also tend to fall into these five categories, each associated with characteristic personality traits. For example, if you are hunti, you are like wood, and have the characteristics associated with its random blessings like resolve, loyalty and steadfastness. If you are sweela, you are like fire, and have charm, intelligence, passion and creativity. If you are coru, you are like water – changeable, flexible, but persistent.
I found this world of random blessings interesting and intricately built, as I usually find Shinn's worlds, but what I love best about Shinn's world-building is that we are usually shown how the world works, and not told. That is, there are no paragraphs as above, whose sole purpose appears to be informing the reader of how the world works. Instead the reader gleans pieces of the world, and how the pieces fit together from observing the characters, or interactions between characters. For example, we learn what characteristics a Hunti man has when Doman, the (unofficial) hunti mayor of Zoe's village obdurately takes care of a grief-stricken Zoe; we get hints of what a sweela woman should be like when Darien tries to appraise Zoe's character. And while there are parts where we are overtly told how certain aspects of the world works, these parts are never given to the reader purely for world-building's sake – they are slipped in as explanations for assumptions that characters have made, or actions that they took which might otherwise seem strange to the reader. In other words, they are given exactly at points when the reader would be wondering about and wanting explanations, and the little bits of world-building provide this explanation in exactly the right amounts[3]. I think Shinn's skill at world-building is quite rare; it's often the case that I will be reading a book, and feel like the narrator is giving me a lecture about how the world works[4].
As for the characters, I liked Zoe and Darien, although I didn't find them particularly noteworthy. Zoe is described as a coru woman with a sweela heart – flexible, but resilient and persistent, with a passionate core. There were times when her character seemed inconsistent – while she is generally portrayed as very flexible, and easily adaptable, at times she was deliberately contrary, just for (what seemed to me like) the sake of being contrary. It was only around Darien that she behaved this way, however, which I realize now probably showed how Darien affected her. Zoe was also, at the rare time, irresponsible. I found that I could usually justify her mistakes, however. SPOILER

For example, Zoe's confrontation with Alys, where she abused her power as the Lalindar prime. I could justify Zoe's actions, although I did think it was a mistake, because i) I could see how she viewed Alys as a dangerous threat that no one seemed willing to check, and ii) Zoe's powers were very new to her, and unlike other primes, she was never trained to be prime, therefore hadn't had the time the other primes had to think about the consequences of her powers.

Darien Serlast is described as hunti through and through. This is pretty characteristic of a Shinn hero – steadfastness is the bedrock on which she builds her heroes: witness Gabriel from “Archangel,”, Tayse from “Mystic and Ryder,” Gaaron, from “Angelica”, Kent from “Summers at Castle Auburn,” etc.[5] He didn't seem to make much of an impression on me though – maybe he will improve with re-reading (Kent certainly did. I went from feeling lukewarm about Kent to him being one of my favourite heroes.) Thinking back, I suppose I can isolate one thing that makes Darien different from other Shinn heroes: although honourable, loyal and steadfast, Darien Serlast is willing to obfuscate the truth in order to keep the kingdom stable. He is willing to mislead the public and hush up scandals if he feels its for the greater good. All in all, I liked Darien, but not overmuch.
As for the romance between Zoe and Darien, like all Shinn books, it seemed to me to be fairly understated for a category romance[6], aware that I am that one would probably read it as quite blatant from a category fantasy. I was a little disappointed with the romance however – my heart didn't get caught in all the highs and lows the way it did for Rachel and Gabriel's relationship in “Archangel”[7] and I didn't fall in love with Kent like Corie did in “Summers at Castle Auburn.” I might come back and see how I feel about it when I re-read “Troubled Waters” (as I likely will).
Prose: A+ (If I could choose one writer whose writing style I could steal, it would be Sharon Shinn's. Gorgeous, lush, and yet the beautifully crafted words never distract me from the story she's telling. Unlike Patricia A. Mckillip, who I love and think has even more gorgeous prose, but I'm often distracted by just how gorgeous the prose is...)
Plot: B (I don't associate Sharon Shinn with lots of twisty plot turns, and so was surprised by at least one of the twists here. I may not have been, had been reading it as I would a Carol Berg or Diana Wynne Jones novel, where I sit up and look for plot twists. There was some political intrigue though, which is the way I like my fantasy – sprinkled with political intrigue. A bit odd considering how I have to force myself to pay attention to modern-day politics)
Characters: B- (They were ooo-kay, solid characters, though I felt pretty lukewarm towards them.)
World-building: A+ (Love, love, love.)
X-factor: A (I love Sharon Shinn)
[1] I have obsessively re-read “Archangel” and “Summers at Castle Auburn,” and I think the only books of hers that I haven't re-read, and probably won't (excepting Gateway, which I haven't read yet), are “The Shapechanger's Wife,” “Wrapt in Crystal” (not sure why, but these ones didn't work for me) and “Jenna Starborn” (not because I didn't like it, but if I'm in the mood to read something like “Jenna Starborn”, I'll probably just go re-read “Jane Eyre”.) Oh, and “The Alleluia Files” because I borrowed that one from a friend instead of buying it.
[2] There are also three uncategorized blessings, which are rare.
[3] Of course, when I say “exactly the right amounts,” this is completely subjective. It's exactly the right amount for my default reading style. Some readers may feel she tells too much, depending on your reading style, and how much you pay attention. For example I feel that Diana Wynne Jones, whom I love, has hardly any explicit explanation of how her worlds work at all. The characters just go about their actions, and go about saying the things they say, and thinking the things they think, with the assumptions they would have having grown up and lived in their world. As the reader, you have to piece together, from their actions, thoughts and words, exactly how the world works. I felt the same way about the first Kate Daniels book “Magic Bites” by Ilona Andrews (by the later books I was already familiar with the world. I can't help but also mention here that I love this series. Kate Daniels is one of my favourite heroines). These books have fantastic world-building, but it required more active reading than is default on my part. So if you find the amount of explanation that Diana Wynne Jones gives to be the right amount, you might find Sharon Shinn to be too pedantic, but for my reading style, Sharon Shinn's world-building is just perfect.
[4] Interestingly, this is the exact opposite of what I want in academic writing. In academic writing, I want the theoretical framework and assumptions to all be explicitly stated and laid in the same place, preferably with a helpful table summarizing said assumptions. And preferably under a heading labelled 'theoretical framework and assumptions' or such. But it irks me when all of the world-building in a fantasy novel is dumped explicitly on me like this – I much prefer getting little implicit hints and clues, and building the world in my head from those bits and pieces. Although getting explicit explanations in fantasy novels is not nearly as annoying as confronting implicit assumptions and vague hints in academic writing.
[5] I think Jesse from “Fallen Angel” might be an exception. He didn't make much of an impression on me. Maybe I'll re-read it to check.
[6]...modern romances, I mean. I've quite enjoyed the Georgette Heyers I've read (Cotillion, Frederica), but find the romance in her novels to be too understated for my tastes.
[7]...then again, I've read "Archangel" some 26+ times (I stopped counting after 26).

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