Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack
In recent years Sheri Tepper has been writing books where environmental concerns have come to the forefront; The Waters Rising is one such novel, but one with a powerful and interesting story that just happens to touch on environmental concerns. Unlike some authors, Tepper doesn’t need to preach to get her point across.
As the story opens, the peddler Abasio and his talking horse Blue are approaching Wold, a part of the world not yet affected badly by the rising seas, rivers and lakes. They’re not quite sure what they’re doing there; Abasio just had a feeling that he needed to head in that direction. And when he meets the child Xu-lai, he reluctantly realises that perhaps he is intended to help her. He’s not quite sure, and he’s afraid to make a dreadful mistake; and he’s also afraid that helping her could lead to a lot of trouble.
Xu-lai is a Tingawan soul carrier. The Tingawan princess Xu-i-lok, wife of the Duke of Wold, is dying. When she expires, her soul passes to Xu-lai, who is then responsible for returning it to its proper resting place in Tingawa. However, the journey will hardly be short or safe. For one thing, the world is changing. The waters are rising, and all people keep finding themselves scrambling further back from the shores – up mountains, further inland, onto islands. Within a century the waters will have risen so far that all land life, including mankind, will be extinct. And some of the scrambling surviving settlements are becoming quite strange.
Of more immediate concern is the wicked sorceress who killed Xu-i-lok. She killed her with the intention of marrying the Duke and making his lands hers; but along the way she’s conceived an irrational hatred of all things Tingawan, and will seek to destroy Xu-lai and her guardians on the trip home.
Initially I found this novel a little hard to get into; but within fifty pages or so I connected with the world Tepper had built, and once I made that jump it was easy to become absorbed in the characters and their problems. The characters are not always that expressive, so with most I felt I only became close to them as Tepper took me into their heads and showed me some of their emotions and thoughts. As I met each character in this way, however, I found myself very interested in their fates. These were characters it was easy to empathise with, despite the unfamiliar world they live in.
Xu-lai is particularly easy to understand; shy and timid and told what to do by everyone, she grows up quickly and then becomes exasperated by the unwillingness of those around her to listen to what she has to say. Most people will understand her frustration at being expected to do what everyone else wants and obediently fall into line with their instructions. If nothing else, it’s the sort of feeling many people experience in adolescence as they try to establish their independence. Xu-lai is quite a charming little character, and within pages of her appearance she had totally captured my sympathies.
Although Xu-lai is central to the story and the cast, she is not by any means the only character. Her guardians, Precious Wind and Great Bear; the Duke of Wold; the peddler Abasio; even the sorceress Alicia; all come to vivid life. As in reality, some of these characters take a little longer for us to get to know than others. However, all are vivid and although you won’t like them all, at the very least you’re going to find their motivations understandable and their actions correspondingly credible. Tepper has a knack for characterisation, and although I think she has a particular talent for strong men and women, she’s also very good at making you understand someone’s weaknesses.
Although Tepper has built a world which is quite strange to us, it is also recognisably a possible future for earth. Tepper chooses not to spell things out, but it is clear that in places she is referring to, for example, nano-technology. While Tepper clearly intends to sound a caution about the use of technology and the destruction of our environment, she does so subtly and in a way that is integrated into a completely believable, credible world. Her decision not to spell out the details of the remnant technology that exists places some responsibility on the reader to pay attention and draw some inferences. The story makes sense if you read it at face value, but there’s a lot going on just below the surface and you’ll get a lot more out of it if you’re actively thinking about the world as well as the story.
I don’t have much negative to say about this novel. Yes, it did take a while to really draw me in, but it wasn’t a very long time compared to the length of the novel. I suppose that if you like everything spelt out for you, this is unlikely to be a novel you’ll enjoy.
I found The Waters Rising an excellent novel; although a touch slow to engage, the story was engrossing and the characters people that came to life and made me care for them. It’s a fearsome vision of the future in some ways (although not a hopeless one) and may spur some readers into considering the impact they have on the environment, while not endorsing any specific movement or actions. I found it thought-provoking, not lecturing. It’s a novel I think I will stay with me for some time.