Watersmeet is probably best described as a fantasy romance, which also weaves in adventure, magic, and the battle of good against evil. The main character, Ailith, is a potter's daughter from a small village, living in a historical fantasy setting which seems to be loosely based on feudal era Britain. Her life has mainly consisted of work, chores, family, and the fruitless search for a husband who won't be intimidated by her literacy, until a strange old man comes to visit and reveals her magical abilities. This brings a whole new set of problems-magic, although it has the power to help people, is forbidden under the strict religious laws of her society. Her life quickly changes, and she finds herself on a quest far from her village, far from her former life, on her way to the castle of a Baron with a fearsome reputation...
I really enjoyed Watersmeet, and quickly found myself so hooked that I read most of its 452 pages in one day. The reader is plunged straight into the heart of the action from the first page, when Ailith finds herself musing over some seemingly unbreakable pottery shards. From there the story dances along at a rollicking pace, with twists and turns which continue right up until the final pages. Although more detail is given for key events, people and objects, Rachel Cotterill eschews page upon page of setting the scene for swift but deft description. I really like this approach as it makes the reader feel they are travelling through the book at the same pace as the characters, and keeps a freshness to the story.
Ailith is an immensely likeable character, who despite being a mage is very pragmatic. She is intelligent, exuberant, and very independent. I felt that the characters in general were well thought out and written-one of the less pleasant characters is written so effectively that I found myself shouting at the book! The central romance, although unusual, avoids many stereotypes and seems refreshingly well balanced, a true meeting of equals. Although there are lustful moments these are mostly alluded to rather than portrayed in detail, leaving a certain amount to the imagination. I felt that the romance had hints of Beauty and the Beast, with love portrayed as a redemptive power, just as strong as the magical abilities of the characters. I found the storyline intriguing and for the most part joyful, and watching Ailith's self awakening and growing awareness of her own power really kept me wanting to find out what would happen. There were enough dramatic moments, emotional revelations, unlikely friendships and fascinating settings to keep me gripped until the final page.
Although the story has a fantasy setting it deals with many issues which I think readers would find extremely relevant. Themes of class struggle, elitism, religious oppression, and the role of women in society are all neatly woven in among the magic and mystery. It is also refreshingly down to earth, with the characters speaking "normally" rather than in a hodge podge of archaic words and phrases like many fantasy stories. I personally really liked this as I felt it allowed me to focus on the storyline rather than trying to work out what the characters were saying.
I can only think of a few criticisms of this book, the first being that it relies heavily on dialogue to drive the story, so conversations can sometimes last a little longer than seems necessary. There was a character I felt could have been a little more developed, and one where I would have liked to see a little more backstory.
Overall though, this was a welcome dose of escapism and an engrossing and uplifting read, which I would very much recommend!