The Waters Rising (Plague of Angels)
by Sheri S. Tepper
Cover Artist: John Picascio
Review by Mel Jacob
Eos Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780061958878
Date: 01 September 2010 List Price $26.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Abasio, a traveler and dyer, and his talking horse Blue, have been sent to help an orphan in Sheri Tepper's new novel The Waters Rising, where most people live their lives at the subsistence level. The rising seas encroach upon the land and threaten human existence.
Xulai, the orphan thinks she's seven, but the dual image Abasio sees confused him for he senses an older presence. The dying princess that Xulai serves, asks her to retrieve an object, but she has failed twice already. Abasio agrees to guard her, but she must complete the task alone. Others seek the same thing and will not stop at murdering a child to obtain the relic.
The novel begins in Norland with Xulai, the child, whose main role is to carry the spirit of the princess, after the woman dies, to her home across the sea. Her vivid and dangerous quest for the object demonstrates Xulai's determination, courage, and resourcefulness despite her fears. Abasio hides her from the ruthless Duchess hunting the relic and ensures Xulai returns to the princess with the treasure intact. Xulai also acquires a talking chipmunk that advises and encourages her.
With the death of the princess, Xulai undertakes a long, dangerous journey to the woman's island home with Abasio, and those who raised her, Precious Wind, Bear, her nurse, and a few others. Before the journey, Tepper provides a long section where Precious Wind and Bear relate the history of Norland to Abasio and Xulai. They include much politics with information on the Duchess and her mother, the Queen of Ghastain, that explains much of what happens later, but may bore some readers.
Somehow, Xulai manages to evade disaster almost too easily. The good people seldom suffer much. The Duchess, Precious Wind, Abasio, and Xulai are the main actors. However, as Xulai sheds her childhood and matures, the story and action moves to others and the initial intense emotions of Xulai abate. This leads to plenty of action, but an uneven narrative.
An accomplished author, Tepper introduced this world in Plague of Angels. In response to the abuse of the population, much of science has disappeared. While Tepper explains the talking horse and mysterious transformations as the result of genetic manipulation and training, most of the novel relies on traditional fantasy elements and explores many of her favorite themes. Plenty of twists and some reversals keep the pages turning yet overall it remains unsatisfying.