Wonder swirls beneath murky water…
When two painted-faced nobles take a guided raft trip on a muddy river, they expect to rough it for a few weeks before returning to their life of sheltered ease. But when mysterious swirls start appearing in the water, even their seasoned guides get rattled.
The mystery of the swirls lures them on to seek the mythical wetlands known as the Living Waters. They discover a world beyond their imagining, but stranger still are the worlds they find inside their own minds as they are drawn deep into the troubles of this hidden place.
The Living Waters is a sword-free fantasy novel featuring an ethereal love story, meditation magic, and an ancient book with cryptic marginalia.
Release date is October 15th
Published by Shadow Spark Publishing
Preorder here | Add to goodreads
I was given a digital arc by the author to read in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Dan!
The Living Waters is a character driven “sword-free” fantasy. In the world of The Living Waters there are two main societal classes – the nobles and the less well-off. The nobles put such value on having pale skin that they paint their faces with thick paint to stop the sun’s rays from penetrating and affecting their skin tone. Their skin tone is assigned a number depending on their pallor and that is then used as a bargaining chip for marriagability. Because of this they constantly wear hats, gloves and shoes for protection. Before settling into their chosen profession or getting married they are sent on a “roughabout” which is a rite of passage to show young adult nobles a little bit of the world outside their city and help them understand what life can be like for the less privileged. I found the detail of this race’s customs and culture fascinating and would have liked to have spent more time among them.
Temi is the very likeable main female character. She is a gentle yet strong-willed painted face noble, whose family has fallen on hard times and whose mother hopes her pale skin will help her to find a husband who might disregard their family’s debt. She is also a gifted illustrator and appreciator of nature, who paints pottery, which is her family’s source of income.
She and Sylvan, another painted face noble, who is a scholar, a recently graduated doctor of life sciences and obsessed with creatures of the river, are paired together for their roughabout. They have been assigned a minder to protect them on their journey, a certified herbalist called Gilea, and their riverboat will be captained by the affable nature lover, Leo, and his dog Sea Wolf.
Sylvan is gifted a book by his mother before he leaves on his coming of age journey – a beautiful copy of a text he has already studied at university, with sketches and descriptions of all of the life forms seen in and along the river and the mythical wetland area known as The Living Waters which few people believe actually exists. There is also some mysterious writing in the margins which seems to suggest the book’s author may have never visited The Living Waters but that the writer of the marginalia has been there. They briefly mention creatures previously unknown to Sylvan, called the ipsis, sitri and duni in the marginalia and he becomes compelled by the thought of discovering what these creatures might be – if they even exist. I found the idea of this book fascinating and would like to see some sample pages! It reminded me of The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden, but with a river theme.
The four travelers embark on their journey and the reader is treated to brilliantly evocative descriptions of the river – a calm place for mediation, fishing and reading. The tone of the story is very blissful and peaceful as they float downstream, even when the nobles are working hard building a cabin on the boat, fishing, then gutting the fish and rowing, all tasks they have never attempted up until their roughabout, earning themselves blisters on their previously pristine hands.
Before long they begin to notice mysterious swirls in the water which don’t seem to have any cause. Leo soon becomes obsessed with them and he and Sylvan are determined to get as far down the river as the wetlands, where they believe the Living Waters are located, in the hope of discovering more about these swirls:
They saw a handful of swirls heading downstream from the creek, with a reddish tint. They moved in clusters of two and three, in sync, though they occasionally swapped positions. One pair, in particular, moved in a kind of dance, side to side, then one in front of the other, then circling around each other. No one said anything about them, but their eyes were all watching, studying the swirls’ movements.
On the way the nobles have a disturbing episode with some parasites which made me cringe really badly! Temi also becomes so ill they think she might die if not treated soon and they witness increasingly weird behaviour from the swirls, which Sylvan begins to think might be the duni from the book.
The author’s imagination and love of nature are to the fore throughout this book as the travelers encounter weird and wonderful sentient creatures who are concerned they have been discovered by humans:
The water churned and bubbled in zigzags and circles, which moved toward the center of the pool, then around the edges, splashing waves up onto the stone, which slithered back into the roiling mass. The water rose up in an unruly column, which flailed and morphed into a furious array of wild shapes, growing taller and thinner, the top billowing like an uncontrolled chemical flame. The sides of the column grew straight and smooth, the tongues of water at the top grew smaller and less frantic, and the column froze in place, more than ten feet tall, glistening in the sunlight filtering in through the clouds.
There is also a lot of emphasis on the soothing practice of mediation, whether preparing for medical intervention or even to enable communication and mind reading and this aids the peaceful, calm tone of the book. Gilea is a skilled practitioner of meditation and is able to teach Temi how to relax her mind and open herself up to the healing powers of their new friends.
Leo has to go through some traumatic experiences but he is happiest on the river:
Leo slept on the roof that night with Sea Wolf, who stretched along his leg, snoring contentedly. He could almost feel the starlight bathing his body like a million cooling suns. As he stared up into the infinite spiderweb of the heavens, he was struck by his own insignificance, a feeling he knew all too well.
My favourite character in The Living Waters was Temi. She underwent hardship and health probems without complaining and was curious about Sylvan and Leo’s discoveries and about Gilea’s meditation practices. Her character evolves during the story, becoming more independent and able to stand up for herself against her mother and the expectations of her society by the end of the story:
“What would be a shame is for me to live in fear of how people perceive me, or to marry someone who only valued me as a shade seven.” Temi lowered her eyes and her voice, which had grown unexpectedly loud. “I’ll be fine, mother.”
I really enjoyed this book – it was easy to keep on reading, there were not too many names to have to remember, no gore or gratuitous sex (or any sex actually) – although there was both love and conflict. I would have liked a map as I found myself a little geographically confused at one point in the story where Leo is on his way to undertake a task and I couldn’t figure out where he was in relation to the other characters. It would also have been interesting to see how far down the river they had travelled from their home town.
For fans of the other books written by Dan Fitzgerald, there are some links between this and the Maer at the end of the story which will no doubt be explored in the future. I can’t wait to see where Fitzgerald is going with those.
About the Author
Dan Fitzgerald is the fantasy author of the Maer Cycle trilogy (character-driven low-magic fantasy) and the upcoming Weirdwater Confluence duology (sword-free fantasy with unusual love stories). The Living Waters comes out October 15, 2021 and The Isle of a Thousand Worlds arrives January 15, 2022, both from Shadow Spark Publishing.
He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When not writing he might be found doing yoga, gardening, cooking, or listening to French music.
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