My best friend has openly declared to me that she doesn't like high fantasies for one sole reason: she has no patience for the world-building.
I believe her exact description is pretty much along the lines of: It takes too much time just to get into the story and there are too many new terms to learn so it gets boring before the story starts.
I'm not certain what high fantasies she's read before, but she told me she based her opinions on the high fantasy of all high fantasies: The Lord of the Rings. Of which she's never read, but she saw the movies, I think.
Now I've never read all of The Lord of the Rings either. But yes, there is quite a bit of world-building to behold when you create something as vast as Tolkien did in his world.
So it's perfectly fine with me that she doesn't like high fantasy because I understand what she means and everyone has their own preferences. I personally love fantasy and high fantasy (or really anything bordering on a world outside of our own realistic one). But it's also a problem I have with most high fantasies as well -- if done right, the world building is weaved into the story without eliciting this look from me while I'm reading about it:
Sometimes the world-building of a high fantasy can get very tedious and end up like more of an info-dump than anything else; it can easily get monotonous and boring.
And that's the thing though. The creation of a whole different world separate from our real one, with originally created cultures, religions, people, governments... add a dash of adventure and magic and the right characters and I'm always ecstatic for a high fantasy! If done right, it doesn't just tell you how this world is built or how the people live, it shows you through the characters and the story, what the world is like. It's not a textbook or an article -- it's a story.
In which case, I make this face:
If it's a world I can see myself desiring to start my own adventure in, then sign me up anytime!
Now back to Troubled Waters.
To be honest, there really isn't anything wrong with the world, the setting, the writing or even the characters of Troubled Waters. In fact, those were the pros of this book. Who doesn't like following a level-headed, intelligent, and powerful female heroine as she discovers her heritage and ambles through her newfound powers while dealing with court intrigue and a somewhat stalker-ish love interest? Sometimes after following the narration of a lot of female characters who sometimes get too emotionally involved and have really bad decision-making skills and continually allow themselves to be man-handled... you like a change of pace.
I really liked seeing Zoe's story unfold as it went, not only because the writing is solid and the descriptions excellent, but because Zoe is a character easily related to in some ways. She's a quiet, almost introverted person with no desires or aspirations to be powerful or make much of herself -- what's important to her is what's in front of her at the moment, including her friends and her family. She has no use for material goods, but she also understands that she must comply with the trendy fashions in order to fit in and survive in court affairs. She doesn't care about position or bloodlines (though she DOES make a small quip something about not tainting the royal bloodline with lowly plebeian heritage or something like that, which I may have paraphrased in my own words, but the thought is there).
She's a laid back person, the type who goes day-to-day without any real plans and making them up as she goes.
It's what I like about her, but then again, it's also what frustrates me about Zoe as well. Despite the fact that she never plans anything about her future and she doesn't give a flip about what happens to her... everything just seems to fall into place for her. Like it's destiny handing her whatever works for her just because it happens to fit the flow of the story and the progression of her life. She's intelligent and resourceful and handles situations well, but she never has to really put any effort into getting where she ends up as the powerful Lalindar Prime.
Everything just kind of fatefully lands in her lap at all the right times.
While I love the characters created in Troubled Waters, I don't like that this story is very much storyteller driven rather than character driven.
The "blessings" that the world and its people are built around play a very important role in how the story is driven and how the characters are created. It's a double edged sword dependent on how you choose to deal with these "blessings" that supposedly form a character's life and personality. The elements are also responsible for what kind of people exist in this world.
It's too... rigid.
But at the same time, it's also a nice play on personality traits that people view others as having. Have a fiery personality and out of this world opinions and thoughts? You must be sweela. Are you rigid and unyielding, stoic and stubborn about your own ideals? Obviously you're hunti. If used properly, it just adds substance to the culture of the world and how people view each other.
Unfortunately, I feel like these elemental traits and blessings were overused to an overwhelming extent. The characters and the narration are constantly drawing attention to their own personality traits as if this was a "written in the fates" type of thing. I'm sure it wasn't intended as a background for this world, but ultimately, it makes me feel like there is no room for differing personalities if you've been assigned a specific elemental or specific blessings.
It also gives these people the excuse they need to act the way they do (whether good or bad) and just let it be brushed off with "Well, I'm coru so it's okay. We do things like that." It makes it seem like these people have no free-will and are acting solely based on their elemental trait and the random blessings they are given throughout the book. The progression of life in this world is very much dependent on fate and the workings of a higher power that we don't even get to see or know about because everything is determined by a bunch of recyclable coins with symbols on them.
Don't get me wrong. I think it's a pretty awesome concept to incorporate into a fantasy world. But to make the entirety of the story progression based around elemental blessings just doesn't sit well with me. And to create the people and the world based solely on a fate-driven principal just doesn't work for me either.
So while I loved Zoe as a person, it does make me wonder how much of the Zoe that I love is due to her own free-will and personality as herself, and how much of it is due to the simple fact that she's a coru woman and thus acts accordingly.
Again, I'm sure that the intent of the elemental blessings wasn't supposed to seem so extreme. At least I hope it wasn't. But there was just so much mention of each elemental trait throughout the story that I couldn't help but make that connection. Had the elemental blessings been downplayed just a little bit, I might have had more of an incentive to fall in love with the world.
While the world-building is still something I'm conflicted over loving or being frustrated with, it is truly the story itself of Troubled Waters that bugs me. Because, as I'd mentioned in an update post, the story felt uneventful. I know a lot of things happen in that first half of the book what with Zoe's life being uprooted and altered dramatically and all... but the entire progression was so lethargic and monotonous that it felt like a lot of nothing happened amidst one or two really big somethings happening.
I remember spending a good percentage of Zoe's mindless drifting wondering when she would come into her heritage and become the so called "Prime" of her elemental. I mean, it says it right there in the blurb -- in fact the summary on the book jacket tells you exactly what was going to happen for the first 50% of the book (as I found out after reading it). So when it finally happened after a long narration of nothing else happening, I wasn't as excited about it as I felt I should have been.
So I made that face (the one at the top of this review with the -_-) for a good part of the beginning of the book. And it didn't even have anything to do with info-dump or world-building, because I was satisfied with the world and the setting, despite the few quibbles I've expressed about the elemental blessings. It was the story progression that got me bored and anxious for something to finally happen and the story to start rolling.
I don't deny that once the story started getting more interesting with some court intrigue and some random court events and a lot of court happenings... well, the story got a bit better. But it still felt like it had no semblance of a destination. What exactly was the story of Troubled Waters? It was a little frustrating not quite knowing where the book was headed.
Character-wise, since the book isn't exactly character-driven (something that disappoints me since the characters are very fleshed out), I can pinpoint specific characters who stood out, but I'm not sure I can talk about anything significant that happens to them.
Darien Serlast was a character you'll either like or you'll forget and for me, he's not very memorable aside from the fact that he kept Zoe under strict surveillance, had one too many secrets that he should have just come clean with (trust has to run both ways and if he wants Zoe to trust and believe in him, then maybe he should stop keeping so many secrets and put some trust in her as well), and he was the love interest. Otherwise, I didn't really care for him much.
The romance between Darien and Zoe wasn't all that exciting, but sometimes quiet romances are simply sweet enough to be good. I loved the dialogue between the two of them; it was witty, intelligent, and had enough thought behind to not seem like a childish first crush or the like. There was nothing angsty about this romance. It was just there. Although I may argue that at the very end, their conversation bordered a bit on tacky (throwing more references to the elemental blessings doesn't help either, even if it does bring their relationship full-circle to where things sort of started off for them).
I can't say as I particularly loved any of the other characters presented in Troubled Waters enough to wax poetic about them. They were there; they were unique in their own way; but they also led a rather passive, boring existence in the span of the story.
Troubled Waters is by no means a bad book. In fact, it's a good one with potential to be a great book (and a great series). It has a rich culture of people. It just needs direction and it needs to really cut back on mentions of the elemental blessings every two sentences.
Otherwise, it was fairly enjoyable as a high fantasy. Unfortunately, I probably wouldn't recommend it to someone like my best friend who just isn't into high fantasies at all. If you're not a fan of high fantasy, then this book probably won't help the genre's campaign much.