'The Waters Rising' starts slow, ends with a bang

Sheri S. Tepper's 1993 speculative novel "A Plague of Angels" whisked us to a North America of the indeterminate future, long after an unspecified event had wiped out most of civilization as we know it. As is typical with Tepper, readers were dropped right into the middle of three story lines, which gradually wound together in a riveting story of an orphan and a gangster racing to save what's left of the world from a wicked witch bent on destroying it, while a mysterious plague further culls an already fragmented society.

Set in the same world as "A Plague of Angels" and including one of the principal characters from that novel, "The Waters Rising" takes place slightly later and in a different geographic area. The people are still living in pre-industrial conditions, but enough is known about the "ease machines" of the Before Time to pique the curiosity of the history-minded — and the power-mad. And the oceans are rising, quickly, forcing entire cities to move and turning swamps into lakes.

Xulai, also an orphan, has been charged with carrying the soul of a dead queen across the ocean to the queen's homeland, Tingawa. Abasio, the reformed gangster from "Plague," shows up to aid and protect her on her journey to the coast and then home.

We learn early on that the queen was killed by a curse of the technological rather than the magical sort, and that the instigator of the curse is a wicked duchess, seeking the queen's husband for herself — not for romance, but for land. Ruthless and cruel, Alicia will stop at nothing to get her way.

The others charged with helping Xulai include Precious Wind, the queen's adviser and a fellow Tingawan, who plays a key role breaking apart conspiracies and foiling plots against Xulai and their people.

The story gets off to a slow start, slow enough that it will likely put off less-patient readers. There's a lot of exposition, a lot of who's related to whom, and too many conversations that come off as geography lessons (there's a map at the front of the book — we don't need to be told repeatedly what's where).

But once that's out of the way and the plot finally gets moving, it hurtles ahead, moving in unexpected directions and revealing more secrets. Tepper richly creates her world and her characters spring to life through incisive descriptions: one has a voice "smooth and oily, like the slosh of pig slop in a bucket"; another's sad smile lets "her face tell the story before her lips did."

Tepper's ecological and social themes, bold as usual, take a while to manifest themselves, but "The Waters Rising" is as much a cautionary tale as her other novels, working in not only the climate angle but also terrorism and the dangerous potential of misused technology.

For readers who hang in there, "The Waters Rising" delivers a strong, complex story that poses tough questions and demands a new look at the possibilities of the future.

"The Waters Rising" by Sheri S. Tepper (Eos, 498 pages, $26.99)