Last week I read A Visit From the Good Squad, Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and it was fine. It was well-written and had a very interesting structure (moving back and forth between characters and time periods) and the famous chapter told in PowerPoint slides was quite affecting. But everyone in the book seemed miserable and my main reaction was to wonder if most people in the world are really that unhappy, because I am not and most of the people I know aren’t. Are all the sad, mean people just clustering together in literary novels? So while I would be happy to discuss Goon Squad more in the comments if anyone else has read it, what I want to talk about instead is the next book I read, Troubled Waters by Sharon Shinn.
I love Sharon Shinn. When I’m poking around on Amazon or on my library’s catalog and realize that she has a new book coming out, I have been know to let out a little squeal of happiness. Her books generally follow a predictable pattern–they are virtually all fantasy stories in which a strong female lead character has to overcome some of obstacle and falls in love along the way. There are often royal families involved, and magic, the characters generally have to come to understand and embrace the powers they have. But don’t think I’m complaining about the books all having mostly the same plot–they’re great! There’s action and romance and excitement and well-drawn characters, and I know that I am going to be satisfied and will enjoy every minute. There’s also a nice feminist foundation underneath it all. The books aren’t explicitly about women overcoming their oppression by men but you get the clear sense that the author is a feminist, and her female characters are fully-realized people.
It can be tricky to figure out where to start with Shinn’s books, because she’s written a ton. There’s a series of middle-reader books that starts with The Safe-Keeper’s Secret, which are fine but a little young for my tastes, and a number of stand-alone books including a futuristic re-telling of Jane Eyre. But the ones I love, and where I would recommend someone start, are the Samaria series and the Twelve Houses books. These are both multi-book series set in two different universes. The Samaria books are about, well, angels. I don’t want to give too much away, but that series has a slightly more sci-fi twist and includes some entertaining Biblical references, even though it is really not at all religious. The Twelve Houses books are a little more traditional fantasy stories about kings and queens and knights and magicians, but I find them nicely grounded with a focus on the people involved and their emotions. I vastly prefer these kinds of stories when they are told on this smaller scale, especially when compared to Game of Thrones-esque enormous epics that seem more interested in the politics rather than the people.
Now that I’ve got all that explained, Troubled Waters isn’t in either of those series, but I’m hoping it’s the start of a new one. It’s the story of Zoe, a young girl who lives with her father in a tiny village far from the capital of her land. When her father dies (which happens on about page 2, no spoilers), one of the leaders of the country appears to take her back to the capital so she can marry the king, and things all spin off from there. There is royal intrigue and magic and a love story and I found the whole thing just charming. The conceit of of the magic in this book is that it is centered around the elements. Zoe has a particular affinity for water, but it feels like Shinn is setting things up for additional books to follow stories of the other elements. As you can probably tell from how brief my review is, Troubled Waters is not breaking any new ground, but I will happily read as many books about this world as Shinn wants to write.