Book Review: Sheri S. Tepper’s The Waters Rising

Posted April 5, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Book Reviews, Young Adult readers

I received this book for free from my own shelves in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Sheri S. Tepper’s The Waters Rising

The Waters Rising


Sheri S. Tepper

fantasy, dystopian that was published by Voyager on August 31, 2010 and has 498 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon.
(This post contains affiliate links you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.)


Other books by this author which I have reviewed include A Plague of Angels

Second in the Plague of Angels dystopian fantasy series set in a possible future Earth.

In 2012, The Waters Rising was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel.

My Take

It’s a story of war and collaboration between peoples and species set in a world that has lost much of its general scientific knowledge. The environmental overtones as we realize our greatest fear of ice caps melting exacerbated by inner aquifers leaking and forcing the oceans to rise. Within a few more generations there will be no more land.

I will say it took awhile before it sunk in that The Waters Rising was set in our future. That it’s another dark age for humans after several apocalyptic events, and only getting darker with humanity existing in a feudal society where machines and science are anathema.

Part of my fascination was with figuring out what was left and where the duke’s kingdom was located, and what’s with those artificial moons? Rose and green? The other part was the humor. Tepper was hysterically funny at the start, seducing me in with Abasio and Blue and the humor they shared.

“‘In order to allay suspicion I am about to sing something pastoral and suggestive of bucolic innocence.’

‘Something half-witted and full of tral-la-las,’ sneered the horse, sotto voce, ‘and hey-nonny-nonnies.’

Which is followed by Blue taking all the credit for allaying suspicion as he kept ‘de-neighing it’.”

It quickly gets dark in tone and almost Borgia-like with the scheming and plotting and poisoning going on. Think of it as a mix of Machiavellian scheming in a medieval romance with a touch of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover in the rollback of civilization and a dollop of Mercedes Lackey’s fantasy worlds. It may all seem like magic, but in truth the explanations are simple.

Abasio is lovely with helpful aphorisms, building Xulai’s confidence. She hasn’t had a childhood either. Kept separate from the children, with no idea how to play, and I love how she describes an afternoon of the children pretending. It made sense, and I suspect it’s an actor’s way as well.

“Of all things in life, she loved having her own way, but it pleased her more to have it when someone else opposed it.”

Tepper drove me mad with all my questions: why is the Woman Upstairs in her coma for all these years, what does a soul carrier do and why is it so important, and so many more questions. And as the story progresses, Tepper heaps yet more questions on before she finally starts to reveal bits and pieces which enlighten and terrify.

I love Tepper’s descriptions of the ease machines the duchess uses. Magic, until Tepper finally reveals the science behind them. All it requires is a bit of code about an individual. When Tepper finally “explains” the protections the princess and Precious Wind used, and taught Xulai, it makes such sense. A fascinating interpretation that reminds me of our own past when doctors were concerned with humors and bleeding was the order of the day. I love the sound of that machine that could cure cancer.

The Tingawans have a lovely death ritual, which pokes fun at religion. I love their preference for a greeting: “Any bird or monkey can chatter, any wagon can make a noise upon a street, but to stand silent, to observe, to remember, that is recognition…” Then there’s their stance about hereditary positions…too true! The international lament among parents of young people who don’t appreciate the old ways. However, the Tingawans have a beautiful approach to those who leave their homes, their land, and there is no regret for having nurtured them. Definitely read the short anecdote about Emperor Elvuk and his garden. A very practical and real philosophy, for what is the point if no one gets to see.

“Children were creations, things to be used, even to be used up if necessary.”

Alicia certainly provides a great deal of interest. She is the nastiest piece of work and has been scheming and plotting for decades. No, she’s not that old. Read into that what you wish.

Tepper manages to cram a lot of messages into one story. Evolution — I don’t think I’d like to be a vegetable, lol, although Tepper did a lovely job of describing life as vegetation. I like that part about sitting in the sun, but the rest? Oh, no. Certainly explains why broccoli and carrots haven’t taken over the world, *shakes her head*” The environment; our preference for building prisons over creating good schools where learning is promoted as opposed to testing, where decency is promoted and bullying dealt with; the stupid bickering that leads to calamitous wars; the benefits of long-term planning; and, the bigotry, on both sides.

Always keep in mind that things are not always as they appear, and being sensitive to others will aid your plans.

The Story

It’s a fearsome thing the Woman Upstairs demands of her soul carrier, and Xulai is terrified, so when Abasio comes along and gives her courage, she sees it as a sign.

In some ways, events are a relief for Xulai, for she has been stuck in Woldsgard, waiting for the princess to die so Xulai may take her soul home to her native land. It’s a perilous journey during which Xulai will learn too many awful and wondrous truths as she grows up too quickly.

Of being the saviour and mother of a new race, an experiment centuries in the making.

The Characters

Xulai is Tingawan of Tingawa and the Thousand Isles, and the Xakixa, soul carrier, for the Woman Upstairs, the duke’s wife, Princess Xu-i-lok. The chipmunk, whose name becomes Fisher, evolves as Xulai needs. The Great Bear of Zol is one of her teachers and now her guard (Legami-An is the girl/woman to whom he’s betrothed); Oldwife Gancer was her nursemaid when Xulai was little but is more of a granny now; Bartelmy Fletcher is one of the duke’s bowmen and a friend who taught her how to ride; Precious Wind (her Tingawan name is Xu-xin) is Xulai’s teacher from Tingawa; and, Nettie Lean is a friend and the seamstress.

Willum and Clive Farrier; Pecky Peavine, Bartelmy’s cousin; and Black Mike, Oldwife Gancer’s grandnephew who can fix anything, will accompany Xulai and her entourage on her journey home. Flaxen is Xulai’s horse.

Abasio is a tinker, dyer, helper of…orphans, a town crier of sorts, and a world saver, for he has lived a number of other people’s lives. He seems quite well known throughout this world. He had been the son of a farmer’s daughter, the Drowned Woman, and his father had been an intelligent leader, not evil, not good known as the Gang Leader. Big Blue is Abasio’s friend, a talking horse. Ollie, “the Orphan”, had been Abasio’s love and taught Abasio how to use her magical helmet library.

Chippy” and “Bram” are travelers heading to Elsmere and then Merhaven.

Justinian, Duke of Wold, is the ruler, a kind, honorable, and sad man awaiting the death of his wife, the seventh daughter of Prince Lok-i-xan, who is himself the head of Clan Do-Lok. Crampocket Cullen is the snooty steward of Woldsgard, and his wife, Dame Cullen is so much worse. Ammalyn is a scullery maid in the castle spying for the duchess. Horsemaster has tips for Xulai. Bright Pearl is said to be Xulai’s mother.

The Becomers are…
…different groups of Sea people who guard a toll road through which the convoy must pass. Each has a different focus of silly worship. Genieve is the woman Justinian might have married who now lives in the Watch House in Merhaven. Mrs. Bang is her cook/housekeeper?

Hallad is Prince Orez and one of Justinian’s allies. Defiance, Count Chasm, lives in Chasmgard with his grandmother, Vinicia, the Lady of the Abyss and Prince Orez’s mother. Earl Murkon of Marish is Hallad’s second son. Combesgard is ruled by Hale Highlimb, the Treelord and manned by Prince Orez’s foresters. Valesgard is where the Free Knights breed the prince’s horses and keep the signal fire.

Wilderbrook Abbey
The abbot is addressed as Eldest Brother and comes to learn about “chain of information”. The prior is best addressed as Elder Brother; he screens everything and everyone for the abbot. Belika is Nettie’s sister and works as a cook at the abbey. Willum and Clive will pretend to be Belika’s sons returned from their travels. Brothers Rahas, Pol, Aalon, and Derris all play guide at different times; only one is a traitor. Brother Wordswell is the librarian. Brother Solomon Whinger, a.k.a., Solo Winger for his missing arm, is the bird-loft man. Sister Tomea gives them the tour and explains how the abbey works and earns its monies. Sister Solace is in charge of the abbey upper schools. Jun, Jamis, and a third are abbey guards in the prior’s pay. Colonel Sallis is ordered in all haste to Netherfields.

The Tingawans
The crew of the Falsa-xin has been waiting lo’ these twenty years to sail for home with the Xakixa. The Axan-xin sails out to greet the Falsa-xin; her captain is the Gull of Caspos, a.k.a., Bunja, an old schoolfriend of Precious Wind’s. Ushiloma al Koul is the capital city of the Tingawans. Tsu-tin is Xulai’s obstetrician.

The Old Dark House is…
…where the Old Dark Man lives here and has been cranking out descendants for centuries; Mirami is just one in a long line whom he’s beaten and sexually abused. He’s been called a wizard, a monster, and a vampire. Mirami has engineered her place as the queen to the king of Ghastain, Karios, King Gahls, a man more interested in pageantry. Her first husband was Duke Falyrion, ruler of Kamfels. His heir was Falredi by his first wife, Nalia. His second son, with Mirami, Hulix, became duke upon Falredi’s death. Crown Prince Rancitor is the son of King Gahls and Queen Mirami. Chamfray is Mirami’s steward, and funnily enough, all her children seem to have his nose…

Alicia is the daughter of Mirami and Falyrion, and she’s now the Duchess of Altamont. There is no love lost between this mother-and-daughter team! Jenger is the duchess’ henchman, both delighting and fearing of her commands.

Both Mirami and Alicia are psychopaths, true heirs to the Old Dark One. They’re scheming their way into power.

“They have no right to offend me by being here in the first place.”

Benjobz and his inn
Loppy is the nosy cellarer. Benjobz, the innkeeper hires “Timmer” and “Hout” to build way more stalls than he should need.

The Sea People
The Sea King ambassador is making the duchess promises, that the Sea King (he’s of the cephalopod race, a kraken) will buy anything that Tingawa values. It’s due to the anger of the Sea People that ships no longer trade.

The Edgeworld isles are…
…rumored to have a store of ease machines and manuals. Artemisia is south of the mountains, and the Big River used to run through there and the land went on south a long way before it came to the Gulf. Florida is gone, three places west of Florida are gone, and Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama are gone.

The different times that preceded the current time include the “Before Time when mankind brought doom upon itself by worshipping” the ease machines, the Hot Times when the sun burned everyone and the ice continents melted and brought about the First Waters Rising; the Big Kill was brought about by bigotry and shortsighted men; and, the Time When No One Moved Around when meteors fell and caused earthquakes everywhere. There was a Time of Darkness as well. Dr. Hammond worked with Jacob.

Huold the Fearless, a.k.a., the Arm of Ghastain, had a device rumored to be powerful. Lythany was the last of his children; Orez and Wold are of the twelfth generation. King Ghastain, originally an Angrian, promised Hulold all the western lands, to his children, unto perpetuity. Which will put a spike in Alicia’s plans.

At some point, people played with genetics and now there are all sorts of odd monsters: griffons, giants, talking horses, trolls, and more. Technicians love and understand the machines. An ul xaolat
is a “thing master” able to “summon a hunter”, move you fast, and lift equipment and people. The slaughterers were volunteers, terrorists, engineered to smell intelligence.

The Cover and Title

The cover is turquoises and greens underwater with Xulai’s face nestled in waving black tresses, the fish and Xulai looking up towards the surface, their futures.

The title is prophetic, for The Waters Rising will obliterate mankind.