Troubled Waters is a lush romantic fantasy that is, perhaps, a bit too light on narrative conflict for much of its length. Yet it ends up telling a story that hits its emotional marks with satisfying warmth and sincerity. Welce is a land in which five elemental classes — elay (air/soul), hunti (wood/bone), sweela (fire/mind), coru (water/blood), and torz (earth/flesh) — guide the destinies of every individual. In addition to its royalty, five noble houses, each with a particular affinity for one of the elements, help bring balance to Welce society.
Zoe Ardelay is the daughter of one of these noble houses, whose father — and by extension, the entire family — has fallen out of favor with the king, the result of machinations by her maternal grandmother. Upon her father's death, Zoe is brought back to the city by Darien Serlast, the king's closest adviser, ostensibly to become the monarch's fifth wife. Bereaved and indifferent to the world around her, Zoe still decides she doesn't much like this arrangement, and abandons Darien as soon as they enter the city.
After living the vagabond life for a time in a tent city — a situation presented perhaps a bit too idyllically here, as you'd expect such an environment to be rife with crime and danger for a woman alone especially, yet Zoe has the good fortune to meet only sweet and helpful folks — she eventually discovers that she is now the head, or "prime," of her late mother's family, the Lalindars. In addition to being relieved of any danger of being married off to the aging and ailing king, Zoe now possesses enhanced powers rooted in her affinity for the family's element, coru. She can command water (and blood), to a degree she never imagined possible. She also rises in stature in the king's court, where she becomes embroiled not only in the bitter rivalries between the monarch's four wives, but in a potential alliance between Welce and a neighboring country. Disagreement over the latter played a principal role in her father's exile. As the Lalindar prime, she is now in a position to restore the Ardelay's family honor — something the king himself wants. But there is trouble brewing. Zoe will be faced with some choices, some of which may have dire consequences, in order to ensure the safety of those she loves, and the realm.
If you're looking for action and stirring battle scenes, move along, nothing to see here. This kind of fantasy is pretty much the antithesis of the Joe Abercrombie aesthetic. Though it moves along a bit too sedately at first, Shinn's writing, which has never been less than beautiful, brings you intimately close to her characters. And her skill at transforming people on a page into three-dimensional human beings is just about peerless. That there is a strong love story element here means that Shinn cannot avoid certain expected tropes. We know, because Zoe cannot stand the sight of Darien as the book opens, that the two will be in each other's arms by the climax. But Shinn structures her tale so well that the progression of their love is entirely convincing, never soppy or formulaic. Realistic dialogue and dramatic complications keep this from being one of those lame stories where everyone's spouting on-the-nose lines in which every emotion simply skims along the surface.
Readers new to Shinn's work might prefer to start with her Samaria or Twelve Houses novels. But if you're a Sharon Shinn devoteé, Troubled Waters will immerse you like a luxurious, soothing hot spring on a cool autumn afternoon.