Wonder swirls beneath murky water.
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 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. It is the first book in the Weirdwater Confluence duology; the second book, The Isle of a Thousand Worlds, comes out January 15 2022.
The Living Waters is the first in a new duology from Dan Fitzgerald, the author of The Maer Cycle trilogy of books. I haven’t read his other series, but they are now definitely being shuffled closer to the top of my TBR, as The Living Waters grabbed ahold of my heart from the first page and didn’t let go. While his first series was full of the ol’ stabby stabby, the Weirdwater Confluence duology is what he has labeled as “Sword-Free Fantasy”. According to Fitzgerald, he wants to “use fantasy to explore relationships and the human experience through a different lens, one that doesn’t have to involve so much violence.” You can read his full blog post about Sword-Free Fantasy here, but suffice it to say that this ended up being a very refreshing read in a lot of ways. It’s a story bursting at the seams with adventure, wonder, and heart, and it’s one that has catapulted itself to the top of my favorite reads this year.
The sweet spot between belonging and isolation had evaporated, and the only thing that gave him a feeling of peace was the pursuit of the swirls, of the mystery they represented.
The Living Waters was partially inspired by the real life raft trip down the Mississippi River that the author took when he was a child (you can read more about the inspiration here) and it really shows. The sense of wonder and adventure that he must have felt while floating down the muddy Mississippi River really bleeds through onto the page. Indeed, the whole book is absolutely dripping with fascination and I constantly found myself being drawn deep into the world that Fitzgerald has built. The book itself takes it name from a field guide within the book covering the flora and fauna of the mythical wetlands called the Living Waters. It is this legendary place that the main characters are determined to reach and they’re driven by an almost dogged need for the truth. Are the Living Waters real and, if so, what wonders do they contain?
The waters and lands of the world are teeming with life and Fitzgerald captured their beauty wonderfully. The Living Waters is a tribute to nature and the majesty of the wild, but it also shows the effect that civilization has on it. Industry is growing and pollution is making its way into the waterways, driving away the creatures that once called it home. The question is raised: where do we draw the line between our need to know and our need to preserve? And, how will nature respond when threatened? Don’t mistake the moniker Sword-Free Fantasy to mean one without conflict or action because there’s plenty of that in here, too!
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.”
I instantly fell in love with each of the four main characters. The culture and upbringing of the two painted-face nobles, Sylvan and Temi, was incredibly interesting to me. Social standing and influence is based on the pallor of your skin, with the palest shades wielding more power than those that are darker of complexion. This means the nobles spend a lot of time in the shade and wear heavy, colored makeup to protect their delicate tones. Whereas Sylvan and Temi are fragile and refined, their guides, Gilea and Leo, are the exact opposite. Low of birth and thus free to bare their skin in the sun, the other two main characters live a much more honest life of guiding nobles on their “roughabouts.” The conflicting nature of these social standings and upbringings made their relationships with each other all the more nuanced and interesting. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that each of the side characters in the book were equally as interesting and fleshed out as the main cast and each had a role to play in moving the story along. As much as The Living Waters is about nature, it is equally focused on relationships. At the heart of it, this is a story about connection. Connection with nature, with each other, with oneself.
I could really go on forever about how much I adored this book. The Living Waters came at just the right time for me. I have been struggling with burnout and so much depression and anxiety, but this book gave me a safe space to lose myself in the pages and float. The book had an almost magnetic attraction in a way that no other book has before and I couldn’t quit going back to it with shorter and shorter periods between reading. I really think that Fitzgerald has stumbled upon something great with Sword-Free Fantasy and, while I do love a read filled with murder and mayhem, this story was alive with hope and the promise of adventure and that’s something I really needed right now. I think we all do.
The swirls moved downstream towards them, side by side, pausing when they came to within ten feet of the canoe, two almost identical swirls of water, each as wide as a barrel top. They began moving again, one passing on each side of the boat. Sylvan watched the one to his right, hoping to see what fish or other creature was responsible. He saw nothing but the swirl on the surface, which rejoined the other behind the canoe and continued down toward the river.