Troubled Waters - Sharon Shin [Elemental Blessings]
Original Review: February 6, 2016
Thanks to one of the myriad of reading challenges I'm participating in, I grabbed a copy of this from the library as well. And it had me hooked from within the first few pages. The societal customs and beliefs underscoring them have the power to make me think. For a novel to do that so early on is fairly impressive from my standpoint - even if those elements have nothing to do with the overall story arc.
Lucky for me, they did.
For the story itself, there was obviously quite a bit of thought put into how to capture the reader. When we meet Zoe, she is watching her father burn on a funeral pyre. That particular event foreshadows more than anyone could guess, though it wreaks havoc on how Zoe approaches what's coming. She is numb with grief - and behaves as such, surprising her own self in her actions and decisions. Grief makes people do strange things.
That may be why the first "twist" quickly fades from the mind and only comes back with time and some thinking. It occurs mere days after Zoe's father's funeral, while she is still wrapped in the shroud of grief - and we are wrapped in it with her to such an extent it barely registers as passing strange. The next one, which comes when she is well out of that haze, is much more significant, and has a much broader impact.
The main counter to our heroine - Darien - is likeable enough from my perspective. He doesn't let Zoe run him over, for all her personality is water based, she is very passionate. He is, if not stable, then at least steady. He also does not condemn her for not easily going along with his plan for her in her grief, and in fact seems pleased to have her fully present in the role she has to play. Even if she does not trust him - or like him much.
Shinn's approach to her characters is definitely more idealistic than realistic, I would have to say. While Zoe, Darien, and other's behavior and deeds aren't particularly exceptional, they are what I could call "appropriate" - Zoe mourned for an appropriate amount of time and in an appropriate manner. Darien's approach after finding her was appropriate. Zoe's reactions to discovering the extent of her fate was acceptable - and her response to her dead father's trespasses was most certainly ideal. Everything extremely calculated and every word written with specific intent.
It's that, and something else I can't quite identify, that helps the story move as one of the most organic ones I have ever read. There really isn't a while lot of drama - at least, nothing major. There are feuds between people, families, enemies and friends, but the flow of interaction, of cause and effect, makes it easy to be absorbed into the story - to find my own place in it as an observer.
Troubled Waters is very much like people watching. Watching the tension build between Zoe & Darien has me held rapt, my pulse fluttering as if I was Zoe - and wondering at her placid response - before realizing it is simply the way she was written to play it. Which makes sense. It's the way I would - and have - played it. It's a pleasure to, again, see something grow so naturally in a story that it seems like an integrated part of it instead of some random addition. There's no "intense, sudden connection" or "mysterious draw" between them - just a natural evolution from dislike to distrust, from distrust to social dependence, and from dependence to affection to love.
When I reached the final scenes, I found myself holding my breath as often as not, as secrets were unraveled and their potentially disastrous consequences revealed. Though I don't know yet if we've seen the full extent of Zoe's power just yet, we certainly see a few impressive displays - both as acts of heroism (calmly controlled) and wildly reactive. We see the results - both good and bad - of Zoe being raised away from her inheritance.
Ultimately, Zoe's preferred behavior is explained by her culture. Every person, from my understanding, "chooses" an elemental association. Certain blessings and behaviors are expected - and while Zoe is often referred to as being all water, she has a heart of fire, inherited from her father's family. Without having that to take into consideration, Zoe would likely come across as too perfect, too contrived. As I mentioned, the characters are all set up to be idealistic representatives of human nature, where any deviation is clearly explained with some sort of dire circumstance.
It is hard or me to find fault with this book, as it really was an enjoyable, well-paced read. I simply did not want to put it down, was sad when it was finished, and looking forward to the next!