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Goats, gripes, and grasping for greatness
Books: Troubled Waters 
26th-Jul-2011 11:03 am
Today to Read
Troubled Waters, by Sharon Shinn, is a stand-alone novel by a veteran author. It was just what I wanted: a tightly focused book that built around a clash of ideas and ideals. The plot is relatively simple: The main character, Zoe Ardelay, begins the book in a grief-stricken haze due to her father's death. She then expands to fill the book as the story sweeps forward and outward from her. As we learn at the very beginning of the book, Zoe's father Nevarr took her into exile and then, after raising her alone and apart from all kin, he died. The king's adviser arrived to bring Zoe back to the capital - ostensibly to become the king's fifth wife and "restore balance" - and Zoe instead walks away and into the world. As Zoe regains knowledge of politics and kinship, she learns that much of what she didn't know could hurt her, and that she, in turn, has the power to hurt or to help others, if she so cares to do it.

Shinn's world-building is rich and colorful, and even the cameo characters are lovingly described. The five elements drive everything, from fate to fortune to the seasons, and are a natural part of everyday conversation. The cheer and charity that Shinn spreads across her works make kindness into a cultural strength rather than a rare treasure. And Shinn's strength of focus in the writing kept what could have been an unwieldy and lumpy plot from getting out of control and losing me as a reader.

Shinn's turns of phrase were intellectually tasty, too. There were points in the book where I would go back and re-read a comment or a description because of the poetry and word-craft involved in that construction. While I can't rank Shinn up with Bujold on the strength of one book, I can certainly say that she soothes the same need. Her romance was understated, and full of strength. There was little swooning, and little agony of doubt. There was self-understanding, admiration, and clash of wills to match the clash of ideals.

In short, this was an excellent book that caught me in just the correct mood for it. I appreciated the lack of Big Bad Evil, or even really scary bad guys. Most of the book was taken up by Zoe's learning and growing processes, and figuring out how the world works. And once she has figured it out, she certainly uses that knowledge. I almost see her as the Thelani Water character out of the Cast in Chaos series - nearly unfeeling, almost amoral - until, suddenly, she's not.


Despite the incorrect use of the subjunctive, I think this is my favorite exchange right now:

"If he was alive, I might have abandoned him at this point, tired of one too many betrayals," she said. "But I do not have that luxury now. I must understand him and accept him, or lose even my memories of him. And I am not prepared to do that - not now. Not yet. Perhaps not ever."

"I do not think," Darien said, "you should consider it a weakness if you still love him."


-- New-to-me books read in 2011 (as opposed to re-reads) --

January
Little Dee vol 2
Little Dee vol 3
Unusual Suspects
Harvest Moon
The Black Stallion (yes, I know, I should have read it with Black Beauty)
Ravens in the Library: Magic in the Bard's Name, with a pre-finished commentary here
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Fang Bangers: An Erotic Anthology of Fangs, Claws, Sex and Love
Must Love Hellhounds
Truthseeker

February
Dark and Stormy Knights
Tortall and Other Lands
River Marked (2/28 - it arrived a day early)

March
Questionable Content, vol 1
How to Flirt with a Naked Werewolf
Lifeblood
Magic Bites
Skinwalker, A Jane Yellowrock Novel
Running with the Pack
Magic Burns
Blood Cross

April
"Skyblaze" Adventures in the Liaden Universe #17
Kings of the North
Goblin Tales
Do Not Sniff the Bees, Two Lumps book 6
Magic Strikes
Magic Bleeds
Mercy Blade
The Initiate Brother

May
Angelology
City of Pearl
An Artificial Night
Late Eclipses

June
After Hours: Tales from Ur-Bar
Magic Slays
Ghost Ship (e-ARC)
Warbreaker

July
Quarter Share
Half Share
Full Share
"Intelligent Design" (short story in the Liaden Universe, published online at Baen)
Heroes in Training
Serenity: Better Days
Serenity: Those Left Behind
Serenity: The Shepherd's Tale
Tiger's Curse
Calamities of Nature, vol 1
Troubled Waters

-- Books abandoned rather than completed in 2011 --

February
Sing the Four Quarters, by Tanya Huff

-- Books Still in Progress --
These are books that I haven't totally given up on, I've just... put them aside... for now. And gee, look at how many of them are non-fiction!
The Brand Within
Gamestorming
If You Don't Have Big Breasts, Put Ribbons on Your Pigtails
Swords and Dark Magic
Battlestations
Wise Man's Fear
Comments 
26th-Jul-2011 05:36 pm (UTC) - I'm sold. Requesting it now.
That's a wonderful (and personally relevant/timely) quote.
26th-Jul-2011 06:48 pm (UTC) - Re: I'm sold. Requesting it now.
Oh, excellent. Please let me know what you think of it when you read it.
5th-Aug-2011 04:01 pm (UTC) - Okay, so, finished.
I thoroughly enjoyed that. Thank you for the recommendation.

The relationships and characters stood out for me as the high point of the book. The personal moments, the bonds of friendship, the little revelations and realizations were beautifully drawn. The grief and the evolving relationship with dead family members was beautiful. I savored the characters' feelings about their situations and about each other. I found her language and phrasing unexpectedly insightful.

Where I had some trouble was the world-building. Possibly through some excess or deficit of imagination on my part, I just couldn't get a handle on the world. There were all these beautiful details, but it felt more like they were floating around on a hazy background than part of something coherent. I kept being surprised by mundane things that clashed with what I thought I'd extrapolated. Individual landscapes and scenes were clear and beautiful. But then there were enough little things that just didn't quite add up for me that I couldn't quite put it all together.

I liked that she didn't run with a straight up industry standard Ye Olde Fantasie Europpe, and she included enough specifics to differentiate it from that, but I wanted more touchstones for what it was. I built Chialto this multicultural southern-european/west-asian influenced city from her details, and then more and more little bits pushed back against that.

The most jarring bit was that my mental image of Darien was a black man. I looked back and it did say 'pale' the first time he was introduced, but between the naming conventions and the wood references, I somehow put together a young Harry Lennix-ish picture in my head. Obviously, that didn't work out so well with the ending.

The plot was handled well, but the ending felt abrupt to me. I loved the slow build romance, but I was a little less than satisfied that it was The End. There were other things that felt more powerful in the wrapping up of her transformation, and I think the author respected that. Yet somehow the ending left a 'and now she has a man, so we don't need to deal with anything else, happily ever after' taste in my mouth. That or a 'give me a sequel now!' taste. I would take a sequel in a heartbeat.
5th-Aug-2011 04:37 pm (UTC) - Also
The conversation right at the beginning where Zoe and Darien talked about whether particular numbers were really lucky set me up to expect the author or the characters to have a more critical eye towards the blessings and the traits and some of the other mystical elements, or for the tension about how 'real' those things were to become important. Then that never happened. No mention of skepticism of any kind in the rest of the book.

I like worlds that run with their own mythology wholeheartedly, and I like worlds that run with a mythology and evince some agnosticism about it; this felt like either trying to split the difference or like another little place where she hadn't completely thought through how that detail fit in the whole.
5th-Aug-2011 08:17 pm (UTC) - Re: Also
Interesting that you pulled on this particular trait of the opening to carry along and then miss as the blessings kept coming out. For me, I thought it more of an intellectual argument such as she might have had with her father, rather than one of true skepticism.
5th-Aug-2011 08:27 pm (UTC) - Re: Also
It might have something to do with my coming to this fresh off a Tad Williams series and a Jacqueline Carey series, both of which loop around and come back to early details - I'm primed to notice and keep bits like that in mind and look for them to become significant.

It didn't seem out of character as a thing for Zoe to say and a conversation for them to have, but it skewed my perspective and expectations on the parts that followed. I would be really curious about why the author included it.
5th-Aug-2011 08:21 pm (UTC) - Re: Okay, so, finished.
You are quite welcome for the recommendation. I keep forgetting to blog that my sister finished it in one night, too. It seems like the right book at the ring time for quite a few of us.

I found the no-surrender love ending to be satisfactory to my taste. Yes, she has a man, but she is refusing to give up anything in order to have him. She *might* try to be a little different, but change is what water people do best anyway. I just adored the undertstatedness of their interest and pursuit of each other. "she wouldn't think about his absence..." kinds of comments were all I really needed or wanted. I got it, too. He was missing from things and places. And she wanted him, but would not be less than she was in order to have him.
5th-Aug-2011 08:50 pm (UTC) - Re: Okay, so, finished.
I loved the no-surrender nature of their relationship. The acceptance without compromise and the choice to be equal and complimentary was beautifully done. The understated-ness of their courtship and the way it grew in intensity was great. I kept waiting for navel-gazing or angst and then loving the way they just weren't those people. The love story totally worked for me, and the last scene was brilliant as a conclusion to the love story.

But the story overall was Zoe's, and it was about so much more than that single relationship, which was why I found ending the whole thing with the resolution to the love story jarring. It felt like going from this rich portrait of a woman with many responsibilities and stories to just the end of a love story. Okay, at first mostly I just wanted more, but then it set in that it bothered me because it felt so much like a Happily Ever After; as if once she found love - in this case awesome non-traditional love that suits her and promises adventure and excitement - once she locked in a man, then that became the point of the story, there was no need to wrap up or continue the rest. 'Word of a Hunti Man' seems like one part of her future, but not a summation or a conclusion. Perfect if it was a break in a series, the end of one chapter, but I think as the final line in a standalone it bothers me a little.

I doubt it's what the author meant, but I felt a little snubbed by it.

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