|Sharon Shinn has created a variety of diverse fantasy worlds, and she introduces us to a new one in her 17th novel. Although not as groundbreaking as her Angel novels or as politically correct as her Twelve Houses books, Troubled Waters is a promising start to a new series.
Three may be the magic number, but in the kingdom of Welce, five rules the day. Individuals identify themselves as belonging to one of five elements - air, wood, fire, water or earth - and the calendar is divided into five quintiles. Zoe Ardelay has lived in exile with her brilliant, fiery father for ten years, but upon his death she is summoned to the capital city of Chialto to become King Vernon's fifth wife. Accompanying Zoe to her new life is Darien Serlast, the king's most trusted advisor. Zoe is a coru woman of water - swift, flexible and changeable, while Darien is a brave, loyal hunti man, as steadfast as the trees. Zoe is still in shock from her father's death, so she doesn't protest her fate, but when the chance arrives, she slips away and joins the vagabonds who live a simple life on the banks of the Marisi River.
Eventually, Zoe comes to realize that she is the Coru Prime, the most powerful woman of her element. Now she can come out of hiding and face both King Vernon and Darien, not to mention Vernon's four wives and the other four Primes. But Zoe has a lot to learn about the convoluted, volatile relationships among Welce's elite. She may have access to certain magical powers distinct to her element, but she doesn't necessarily know how best to use them. And although she gradually acknowledges that she is attracted to Darien, she knows that his first loyalty is to King Vernon. The stakes get higher when a delegation from the neighboring kingdom visits and long-held secrets threaten to throw the Welce into chaos.
The first book in a new fantasy series is a challenge for an author, because it has to fully introduce the reader to an unfamiliar world while also providing a compelling storyline that fits within one book. For the most part, Troubled Waters succeeds admirably in these twin goals. Welce is a fairly generic fairy tale kingdom, although technology is starting to advance to the point where newly invented, primitive automobiles are a luxury for the wealthy. The five elemental personalities are well-defined, and the background mythology about how each child receives three specific blessings at birth that frame his or her personality provides additional layers of depth. The novel, like a meandering river, takes its time getting to the heart of the story, but the details along the way are engaging.
Zoe starts out as a numb, grief-stricken, lost young woman, and her journey towards love and self-discovery is rewarding. It's easy to root for her as she engages in a battle of wills and wits against the king's conniving second wife, but at times she comes perilously close to abusing her powers. The romance with Darien is subtle and sweet - shades of Senneth and Tayse from Mystic and Warrior, but neither as fiery nor as memorable.
It's not immediately clear if Shinn will continue Zoe's story or focus on different characters if this series continues. I wouldn't place Troubled Waters in my top five list of Sharon Shinn novels, but I would place Sharon Shinn in my top five list of authors whose books are eagerly anticipated auto-reads.