I rather liked Sharon Shinn’s Thirteen Houses series, and of course her science-fiction flavored Samaria series.
Troubled Waters starts a new Elemental Blessings series; currently this and the second book (Royal Airs) are out.
The setting is, as expected, a late-medieval world, just on the cusp of industry and transport beginning to change the world. The protagonist is a privileged woman, people are generally smart, nice and wise, there’s a small amount of magic in the world, and there’s an undercurrent of romance or relationship. In that respect it’s quite similar to Thirteen Houses and has a similar Mary Sue air to it, if you find that offensive.
In this series Shinn has created a new world, with a very convincing numerology-based system that permeates social organization, religion, timekeeping and commerce. There’s a regent and five essential houses. There are five fundamental dual human characteristics — Elay (Air/Soul), Hunti (Wood/Bone), Sweela (Fire/Mind), Coru (Water/Blood) and Torz (Earth/Flesh). Each of those characteristics is associated with a set of eight blessings such as “joy” or “resolve” or “honesty.” The character of a person is somewhat determined by blood, based on their parents or grandparents, and typically is predominantly one dominant characteristic with a possibility of another lesser one. Some combinations are good, some make for a conflicted or difficult personality. There are temples in which you can divine a person’s character as well as coming events by drawing random blessings.
It all sounds rather convoluted, but it really isn’t. The entire setting flows naturally as the plot progresses, and once I was done with the book I was a bit surprised to remember that that’s not how the world actually works. The money and timekeeping are a bit more work, but an appendix explains it, should it become confusing.
The system reminds me somewhat of a role-playing game with its archetypical characteristics or alignments; so much so that this entire world would lend itself rather well to a game setting. Either way, Shinn does a brilliant job structuring a world around people whose personalities are either predetermined to some extent, or who appear to be easily sorted into these categories. The protagonist is a Coru (Water/Blood), and the way she is always moving, restless, calm yet potential for amazing fury does the element of water and the likeness of a river great justice.
The plot eventually becomes court and succession intrigue. Frequently new revelations cast past events — both major and seemingly inconsequential — in a new light, either to the reader, the protagonist, or both. The machinations and motivations generally seem believable and consistent and weave a rich tapestry.
The pacing is good, though falters a bit towards the end; it almost feels as if the book vacillates between finishing properly or splitting into another volume — as she’s done before, Shinn picks up the next installment years after the events in this, so how repercussions played out is hinted at but not given as a story. That being said, this volume clearly stands on its own, and ends in a way that doesn’t make you demand the next volume to found out what happened. The prose itself is good enough to overcome any desire I might have to skim, with occasionally delightful vocabulary. Most importantly the flow is great, and this easily was one of those books that makes one ignore bedtimes or even mealtimes.
Four out of five.