Dangerous Waters by Juliet E. McKenna – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first novel in the Hadrumal Crisis series from Solaris Books.
“Outwardly a traditional fantasy story about mages and pirates and nobility, Dangerous Waters is far more than that and there’s a strong undercurrent of political deviousness in the book, which helps to set it apart from others in the genre.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
As part of my “25 Series To Read In 2013” reading challenge for the year, I read Juliet E. McKenna’s Dangerous Waters last month. The book, the first in the Hadrumal Crisis series, is set in a much larger world that McKenna has already written about before, such as the Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution and the Tales of Einarinn series. The reason I picked Hadrumal Crisis over the other series was that this series just had its third book released recently and I’d read somewhere that you didn’t need to know a whole lot of prior backstory to start reading these books. So I took the plunge, tempered with the expectations that the book just might be too “advanced” in the setting for me to be able to catch-up. But you know what, I had almost zero problems. The way that the author has written this book, it really is no different to how Raymond E. Feist has written all his Midkemian novels. You can pick up, say, the first Riftwar Legacy book or the first Serpentwar novel and you won’t have a problem following along and you won’t have to worry about not having read the Riftwar trilogy because these books are all written as entry points.
Ultimately, that’s a huge, huge plus for a series like this. Compare it to Robert Jordan’s (and Brandon Sanderson’s) Wheel of Time and that one is worth a few headaches. I want to read the first book, but I dread at the thought of it being little more than a token effort since the books are, first and foremost, so huge, and they all supposedly tell a story that takes place over a period of some ten years or so and feature all the same characters for the most part. Its just not fun.
Back to Dangerous Waters, one of the things that I really liked was how the book opens. Each of the first three chapters are from the perspective of one of the primary protagonists, so the first chapter is the magewoman Jilseth, the second is the former Halferan soldier Corrain, and Lady Zurenne Halferan. The chapters are short and they give a quick and engaging intro to each of the characters and play up to the core of who they are and how their arcs will play out. Jilseth’s chapter in particular is very evocative and quickly sets the stage for what is to follow.
My favourite character in the novel is definitely Jilseth. As a magewoman, she is almost an automatic hit with me, especially since we get to see a lot of the Hadrumal wizard society from her perspective and she gets some suitably cheeky and awesome scenes where she puts down the various Caladhrian nobles. Additionally, good female mage characters just aren’t that common in fantasy, not in my experience at least. Certainly not as leading protagonists. So Jilseth has a lot going for her, and McKenna takes the time to really develop her character. We get to see her character growth in detail, even as the world around her begins to change, and she is increasingly shaped by those events. Jilseth is a much more nuanced and deep character by the end of the book, and its fantastic.
Corrain and Lady Zurenne on the other hand, I have a love-hate relationship with them. There were several times in the novel when I wanted to give both of them a good earful on the mistakes they kept making, and the lessons that they failed to acknowledge. Even then however, upon a bit of reflection, I thought they were still realistic. Corrain is a man driven by revenge and a new-found bias, whereas Lady Zurenne is someone so far out of her depth that she is flailing all the time and yet no one can really “rescue” her. She has to do everything by herself, and she is doing the best that she can, despite all her missteps. That does create a bit of sympathy for both of them, and in that respect, McKenna has certainly hit the mark.
The comparisons that come up between the confident and powerful Jilseth, and the “rookie noble” Lady Zurenne also drive a lot of the story in the middle chapters and towards the climax. Whenever the two of them are together in a scene, the power differential between them is always delineated just by that very fact. Through their monologues and internal commentary, we see how institutionalised Caladhrian society is and how it has affected them both in separate ways, with Jilseth being an agent of the mages of Hadrumal and Lady Zurenne being (initially) largely a typical noblewoman.
However, just as with Jilseth, Corrain and Lady Zurenne also grow into more nuanced characters by the end, and the changes are stark. They both have a huge learning curve to deal with by then, and its interesting to see how they develop into much more compelling characters by the time the curtain drops for this act.
As I mentioned previously, Dangerous Waters is also a political novel. It primarily deals with how the Caladhrian nobles play their game of tug of war with the Hadrumal mages, and the lengths that they will go to in order to step around the biggest dictate of their world: that no Hadrumal mage will ever engage in the internal feuds and conflicts and problems of Caladhria. This extends to the mages not helping the nobles when pirates attack up and down the coast, and the nobles are forced to employ some desperate measures, such as the deceased Lord Halferan employing the services of an unaffiliated Hadrumal wizard to hunt down the pirates. The plan backfires spectacularly and the entire narrative is about the fallout of that disaster, and how the balance of power in Caladhria, and even the rest of Einarinn, will be affected because of Lord Halferan’s unwise decision. To go back to Raymond E. Feist a bit, one of the standout features of his Riftwar and Empire trilogies was that we got to see the internal political struggles of the Tsurani magicians in detail. We saw how they are all divided into groups, each with their own agendas, and how these all fit into the larger backdrop of the Tsuranuanni society. As far as I’m concerned, whether it is intentional or not on McKenna’s part, she has recreated that element. And I love it. Whenever I read a fantasy novel with a strong political component, C. L. Werner’s Dead Winter being another fantastic example, I am always in love with the book. And that’s the case here as well.
And finally, to go back to the question of how approachable this novel is, being the latest in a long series of novels set in the same world, I’d say it is very approachable. I rarely had any issues in that regard. McKenna drops ample references to what has happened before with the other characters (and even some of the same ones such as Jilseth and Minelas) that I never felt like I was missing out by not having read any of the other Einarinn books. Now, what this novel did do was that I want to read those books of my own volition, rather than needing to read them just so I can better understand this book. So, job well done on the author’s part!
Dangerous Waters is, in the end, a great novel that delivers on the promise of exciting characters, with a really engaging narrative, some great world-building and a really good pace with a satisfactory conclusion. One of the best fantasy novels I’ve read this year, or the last if we compare, for sure.
Note: This novel is graded according to a new ratings system, the details of which can be found here.