In Unquiet Land, Sharon Shinn’s fourth book in her ELEMENTAL BLESSINGS fantasy series, the story returns to the country of Welce, the setting for the first two books in this series. Leah, who was introduced to readers in the third book, Jeweled Fire, lived in the country of Malinqua for five years, helping Darien Serlast, the ruler of Welce, by acting as a spy and, for the last few months of her stay, keeping an protective eye on the princess Corene, who was on an extended visit with the ruling family of Malinqua. More to the point, at the time Leah was running away from personal issues in her life: a lover who deserted her when she told him she was pregnant, and her now five year old daughter Mally, whom Leah handed over as a newborn to her uncle Taro (the torz prime) and his wife Virrie before she disappeared from all of their lives.
Now Leah has returned to Welce after five years away, determined to get to know her young daughter that she initially abandoned in her youthful confusion and despair. Leah’s urgently hoping to be able build a relationship with Mally and, at an appropriate time, to tell Mally that she, Leah, is her mother. But Darien isn’t willing to let his trained spy drop out of his employ quite so easily. He offers her a new opportunity to serve the Welce crown, by opening up a shop in Welce’s capital specializing in exotic international goods, catering to visitors from foreign lands who have come to Welce for diplomatic reasons, and hopefully getting to know some of these visitors and learn more about them and their plans. To sweeten the pot, Darien arranges for Mally to come to the city with Virrie for a stay so that Leah can spend some time with her daughter.
Leah’s new international goods shop is an instant success, both financially and politically; she soon meets a very friendly but rather disturbing woman from the delegation from the Karkades, a country that is causing Darien particular concern with its political intriguing. She visits often with Mally, and their relationship begins to grow. And she develops a tentative peace with her former lover Rhan Ardelay (son of the sweela prime).
While in Malinqua, Leah had spent some time working for Chandran, a merchant from the country of Cozique. After a rough start to their relationship (he poisoned Leah at their first meeting to determine whether she could be trusted before giving her the antidote), they developed a friendship tinged with attraction. They’ve been writing letters, but Leah is surprised when Chandran shows up at her shop one evening, on the run from Malinqua for his own reasons. Their relationship continues to develop, but Chandran has a secret past. When he shares it with Leah, she’s not at all certain that she can accept what he’s done in his prior life.
Unquiet Land juggles Leah’s slowly growing relationship with her daughter, her equally gradual romantic relationship with Chandran, and the political intrigue revolving around the country of the Karkades that begins to entangle Leah and others. The Karkan people have some disturbing habits and philosophies, and when dead and nearly-dead people begin to show up on the streets of the city, Leah suspects that the Karkans are up to no good. And Chandran may know more about this than he’s willing to say.
Unquiet Land is pleasant but very leisurely paced. The three plotlines all have their tensions, but mostly it remains at a simmer, and it isn’t until the last third of the book that the adrenaline kicks in. Leah’s slow-burning romance with Chandran wasn’t particularly appealing to me. Leah’s in her mid-twenties and Chandran is in his mid-forties, a significant age gap. Chandran is also rather hesitant in his manner (for good reasons), and is described as having a “prominent forehead, generous nose, [and] thickly bearded cheeks and chin,” a description that I didn’t find particularly appealing. So I wasn’t really feeling the romance in this book, although it helped when I started mentally picturing Chandran as Joe Manganiello. I can be shallow like that.
Leah’s international store, where much of the action takes place, was a richly imagined, exotic place. Shinn’s descriptions of the items that are sold in this shop are entrancing:
Gloves made of gray-and-black striped fur, spices that smelled like citrus and cocoa, lengths of wool dyed in royal colors, goblets of blown glass fused to etched silver.
Shinn realistically conveys the hard work involved in running a retail shop, as Leah and her friends work night and day to stock the store, deal with difficult customers, and make the venture a success. But the chief strength of Unquiet Land is in its thoughtful exploration of interpersonal relationships of all types ― romantic, familial, friendship, political ― but particularly the redemptive love of a parent for her child, even under fraught circumstances. It’s a touching portrayal of a woman’s personal growth, learning to give and accept love, told with insight and occasional humor.
In Welce, individuals are affiliated with one of five elements, with their personal qualities and even, in the case of the one magically selected “prime” person for each element, magical abilities that are reflective of that element. The three previous books in the ELEMENTAL BLESSINGS series focused on the coru (water/blood) element (Zoe in Troubled Waters), the elay (air/soul) element (Josetta in Royal Airs), and the sweela (fire/mind) element (Corene in Jeweled Fire). In Unquiet Land the focus is on the torz (earth/flesh) element, which Leah, Mally and others in their family share, and the qualities of patience, honesty and endurance associated with that element. It’s an intriguing concept, and I’m hoping Shinn will write at least one more book in this series focusing on a hunti (wood/bone) woman.
Elemental Blessings — (2010-2016) Publisher: The author of the Twelve Hours series welcomes readers to a new fantasy world, where the elements rule. Zoe Ardelay receives astonishing and unwelcome news: she has been chosen to become the king’s fifth wife. Forced to go to the royal city, she manages to slip away and hide on the shores of the mighty river. It’s there that Zoe realizes she is a coru prime ruled by the elemental sign of water. She must return to the palace, not as an unwilling bride for the king, but a woman with power in her own right. But as Zoe unlocks more of the mysteries of her blood — and the secrets of the royal family — she must decide how to use her great power to rise above the deceptions and intrigue of the royal court.