Today I am delighted to be sharing my review of The Living Waters by Dan Fitzgerald, the first book in the Weirdwater Confluence Duology which is out from Shadow Spark Publishing on the 15th October. I loved the Maer Cycle, and was super excited for this one and oh my goodness I am in love with this book and it’s characters. This is possibly the longest review I’ve written because The Living Waters gave me so many thoughts and feelings, and even then I don’t feel as though I’ve even scraped the surface.
Disclaimer – I received a copy in exchange for an honest review, all thoughts are my own.
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.
Oh my goodness where to even begin with this review. I’ve been sat here for an hour trying different ways to start it, and you know what? I am going to gush. I didn’t just love this book, I ADORED IT. There are some books that you read at just the right moment, and The Living Waters was definitely one of them. I curled up in bed with it last night, with the Scottish weather doing what it does best at this time of year and pouring down outside. I intended to just make a start on reading this one as I had some other stuff to work on… I was at nearly 50% before I realised what was happening because I was just so enthralled by the story, the characters and the world. I then attempted to work…and gave up barely half an hour later, because I just wanted to dive back into The Living Waters.
I finished this book in an evening because I couldn’t pull away from it and you know what? I am more than okay with that because it has been a while since I’ve felt so full – of emotion, tranquillity and just general contentment – from reading a book, or so at peace.
Part of that can very much be attributed to the setting, as reading The Living Waters felt very much like that feeling you get when you turn off all technology, wrap up warm and cosy, and go out for a walk in the depths of nature.
“Big ones like this, usually, but nature does love to surprise you…”
This book is an ode to nature, and I loved all the little details and the care that was taken to capture that feeling. From the information in the ancient book from the blurb (and the cryptic marginalia) – also I really want that book, and it was so easy to imagine what it would look and feel like, and the old book smell (I may have been slightly immersed in this book) – to all the unfolding details as Sylvan and Temi are introduced to the world on and alongside the river, and of course within The Living Waters themselves. I loved the balance between the practical details, for those living on and around the water, from fishing and hunting to dealing with pests and dangers (and my toes definitely curled at the bit with the mudworms), and the scientific/naturalist aspect – and I loved how they worked together to create that sense of wonder and discovery, with the different sides often blurring together.
I also loved the interplay of that naturalist/scientific approach and mythology, from the question of whether the mystical Living Waters exist, to what lives within those wetlands if they do, to the intersection of philosophy and spirituality and medicine. Amongst everything, it was a wonderful exploration of the question about whether everything needs to be proved or shared with the world, or whether sometimes it’s enough just to believe, or to let something remain ‘mythical’ in a world hellbent on answers. Sylvan’s journey in particular felt like a reflection of that, although he wasn’t alone in opening up to new experiences.
Amongst all that questioning though, there is very much a sense of wonder and whimsy – as a character Leo felt very much like the embodiment of that. The Living Waters though were the pure essence of that and were written so vividly that there was no need to close your eyes to envision that place, and as much as I loved the journey up the river – it was the time spent in the Living Waters and with the ipsis that was my favourite. There was just something so wonderfully magical and yet natural about the ipsis and how they lived and worked with their surroundings.
That said, while the majority of The Living Waters is about nature and the river, and the flowing water, we also get to see the world around and beyond the water, and it was fascinating in its own way. From the restrictions and traditional ways of the painted-face nobles (and I absolutely adore the imagery of the painted faces, and how that is built into so much of the story), to the bureaucracy of cities divided into rings, to different ways of living along the river that ties them all together. There was such a distinct feel to the different settlements as well, whether it was a brief glimpse, a short visit or just shared through memories and conversations, and it added another layer to the world and to the characters.
Speaking of characters, one of my favourite aspects of how Fitzgerald writes has always been his characterisation, and as much as I loved the characters in the Maer Cycle, it feels as though he has reached a whole new level here. From the four main characters to those they meet along the river, to the ipsis, he does an amazing job of making them vivid and real, and so wonderfully human, with flaws and quirks and so much emotion.
There wasn’t a single character that I wasn’t immediately attached to, particularly our main group of four – Gilea, Leo, Sylvan and Temi – and I loved the counterbalance between the two painted-face nobles and the two who had lived and experienced the wider world. But, also, that for all that experience, the journey turned out to be one of discovery for all of them, and not just in terms of learning more about the river and its secrets, but discovering more about themselves and one another. The development within the group, and for each of them as individuals, was beautifully done from start to finish. It’s honestly hard to choose a favourite between the four of them, although they are very different.
I think if I had to choose, Temi would edge out the others, there was something about her inner strength that I just loved, and her journey was possibly my favourite – although it most certainly wouldn’t have been the same without the others. I also enjoyed how her story was paralleled by Sylvan, that these two who had come from similar origins but with different goals, found their paths not only intersecting but almost changing over at the end of the book. Sylvan was just wonderful, and at the end of the book there was a feeling that he had almost grown the most, but changed the least – confusing I know, but it felt very true to who he was. Leo, I just felt an immediate connection with. That desire to be alone, and then needing to come back and be involved, to be connected is one that resonated with me, and that paired with his sense of wonder just made him such a wonderful character. I also appreciated that for all of his skills and confidence, he had the softer moments, the moments of wavering and needing support – and there was a moment towards the end where I just wanted to wrap him up in a hug. Gilea was fantastic, and her journey by far felt the most internal and personal and yet the most open because a lot of the journey and relationships – between them, and with the ipsis and sitri was the internal becoming external.
So many contradictions – and I love it.
Temi’s words wrung her heart like a sponge, but she retained a drop of hope at the word. Yet. “That’s okay. We feel what we feel.”
There were so many wonderful relationships – romantic, platonic and familial within this book, but the one between Temi and Gilea was beautiful and delicate, and it felt like watching that last, reluctant bud flowering in spring. The moments between them, the connection, was some of the most beautiful writing in this book, and Fitzgerald captured the emotions perfectly.
(My one and only complaint is that I want more of them!!)
This level of characterisation and emotion is not limited to the main four. There were the people they met along the river, including two brothers whose bond was a thing of joy to behold. Then there were the ipsis and the sitri. As I mentioned above I loved the ipsis as a people, but I also adored them as individuals – and what really stood out for me is how well we get to know them, the connections that were forged, without a shared language. Sadie and Ranger were absolutely fantastic with barely a word spoken in a shared language, and yet there was no doubting their emotions and feelings, or the bonds they forged and I loved how Fitzgerald used other means of communication – from the opening and sharing of minds, to touch and blinks -and it just added so perfectly to that mystical feeling of that part of the book.
This same care is shown with the duni and sitri, again without the use of language as we tend to know it, and how they have found a way to communicate. However, what really stood out for me, as we got into the conflict properly was that the ‘villains’ were not black or white and that you could you can understand where the spreaders are coming from. Throughout the journey, we’ve seen the different settlements along the river and the impact they’ve had on the river, with pollution and muddying the water. Why wouldn’t they want to claim more of the river for themselves? To fight for clear waters? Their methods admittedly left a lot to be desired, but you can empathise with their desire, and I think that’s why the conflict works so well – because you can see and feel for both sides, and you can understand the costs on both sides and it just adds such a wealth of depth to the moral questions of how to solve the problem.
The Living Waters is called a sword-free fantasy, and it really is, but that does not mean that there isn’t tension or stakes or risk, and the action as the conflict built to its zenith was gripping. This would have been a very different book with swords, and nowhere near as powerful. I also love that the ‘magical’ aspect such as it is, is also subtle and not the bright, sparkling thing we often think of with fantasy. Instead, we have a combination of alchemy (and hello Patia) and a philosophical/spiritual approach with meditation and a focus on learning to open up and let the world and others in. I’d seen snippets and was excited to see how this would work within the whole, and I cannot think of anything else that could have worked so beautifully within this story, again its that embracing of nature and self, and I know that I found myself breathing deeply and feeling the calm in those moments.
Fitzgerald has really created a thing of beauty here.
The Living Waters was one of my most anticipated books for the latter part of 2021, but I was not prepared for just how much I needed this book or how much I was going to love it. There was not one aspect of this book that I didn’t adore, and I can see this one becoming a frequent reread whenever I need a break from the helter-skelter of the modern world. Plus I just want to spend more time with the characters. Fitzgerald had already become a must-read author for me, but The Living Waters has cemented that and I will be counting down the days until the release of the second book. This book had everything (apart from swords, but honestly who needs swords?), and I also loved a couple of little almost ‘easter eggs’ from the Maer making an appearance to encountering a friend within the city of Endulai. All I can do is reiterate that I truly, deeply adored this book and that I cannot recommend it highly enough. So, please take a break from the world, preorder this work and lose yourself in its pages as soon as you can.
If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.