An impression of The Waters Rising: A Novel
I respect Tepper as one of the grand dames of science fiction for writing about women in different worlds, for writing Women’s Country, Grass, Beauty and so many other books that captured my imagination, drew me in, and wouldn’t let me out without thinking about her points. Sure, her later books got preachy and heavy-handed here and there IMO (The Family Tree) with the moralizing, but hey, her writing is usually consistent and I loved how she hung many of her stories on the fringes of folk tales, mythology and older storytelling traditions while keeping her own style.
The Waters Rising is a continuation of Plague of Angels, one of my easy-reading favorites of Teppers. Well, insofar as any of her books could be called easy reading simple entertainment. It takes place an indeterminate number of years after the events of Angels. It features Abasio and his friend Big Blue the wise-crackin’ talking horse. Otherwise, there’s an entirely new cast of characters, settings and situations. It is set in the same universe as Angels, so a major antagonist in the book heralds from the Big Kill, a historical era that these characters share with the ones from the first book millenia ago.
Tepper likes to take a theme, create a situation for it and push it to absurd levels. In Waters Rising, the titular event is your typical Macguffin. It’s briefly explained and left alone. It’s a simple fact. Earth’s waters are rising by many feet every year, and the salt in the water is diluting, and that’s that.
Partly where the book falls apart is with its main character Xulai, the girl pictured on the cover. Through her name and the reader’s introduction to her, it’s obvious that she comes from a Chinese/Confucian based culture. She starts out as a young prepubscent girl by all appearances. But is she? Even Abasio (a white man in his 30s? 40s? 50s? older?) is creeped out about his inappropriate feelings toward Xulai when he meets her. To his credit he tries to avoid those feelings. Through a series of unfortunate events, Xulai has to get back to her ancestral home because she bears the soul of her Lady, who died in the foreign land Xulai grew up in. Sort of a Star Trek Katra thing. Trekkies will know what I mean. Abasio and Big Blue join her, along with a small determined group, and then the fun really begins. It does take Waters a while to get going.
Even taking for granted that in this future world all sorts of things can happen that seem like magic, but are really advanced science, it does stretch believability that Xulai isn’t the age she appears to be. The mysterious Asian girl-woman trope attached to this character in this book made me uncomfortable. Abasio and Xulai reach an agreement as they travel that makes everything all better, but with the earlier background between the two characters, it was hard for me to shake the distinct ewwness I still felt even when aspects of their relationship (esp in the final quarter of the book) were treated with sitcommy humor or sincerity by the characters themselves.
There are other female characters. I don’t have Plague of Angels to refer to, but Alica in Waters Rising is a villainess who comes across much like the antagonist witch in Angels. She’s all bad, all the time. She’s the calculating, scheming, deadly, you-wouldn’t-want-to-be-her-henchman witch. She was born bad. So was her mother. There’s some depth to her at first, but that vanishes with the revelations of her origins.
And then there’s Xulai’s teacher-mentor Precious Wind. I liked her. She came across as one of the more human of the characters, but unfortunately wasn’t able to pop out into three-dimensionality. None of the characters really did. A lot of things happen to the characters, and they do a lot of reacting, but even as a lot of change happens around them, they themselves don’t grow. It played like a weird travel brochure.
It was a scattered book, with all kinds of elements in it that felt disconnected to me. It read like a cake with too many sweet ingredients and flavors inside. Individually the elements were neat ideas, but it was like Tepper thought this ingredient would be great, threw it in, and didn’t pause to taste the batter. What it really felt like to me was that Tepper liked Abasio and Big Blue from Angels, and wanted to give them a happy ending, or at least one that wasn’t unhappy. Much as I liked revisiting Abasio and Blue (I want THIS horse for my birthday, mom!), I wish she’d left him with his bittersweet ending in Plague of Angels.