Title: Royal Airs
Author: Sharon Shinn
Days to read: 5
Rafe lives in the slums of Chilato, a city ruled by powerful elemental sorcerers called Primes. In this city, citizens seek guidance for all life’s questions—including guidance about who they are—from blessings of the elements in the form of coins marked with traits associated with each element. The problem is Rafe has gone to dozens of temples and rummaged through countless bins of coins and he always ends up with ghost coins, or coins whose markings are so worn out they have no clear guidance to tell him. So, he doesn’t know who is he, really. The only thing he does know inside out is the Chialtan card game Penta—and how to have the right cards in hand to win. He credits part of his success to his skill at reading the strengths and weaknesses in his opponents at one glance, gauging the kind person they are and playing them as deftly as he plays his cards. But, when a mysterious girl stumbles into his local bar one night, looking like she should be anywhere but there, he is intrigued to learn her story. This chance meeting soon introduces him to a whole new world of powerful politicians, princesses with kind hearts, Primes who can see truths even the most canny try to hide, and nobles with schemes he can’t figure out. It’s not long before his rather shiftless gambler’s life is irreversibly turned upside down…and this time, he isn’t quite so sure the cards he has in hand will help him win the round.
Over the weekend, I came down with a phlegmy, chest-rattlin’, rib-crackin’ sleep-sabotaging sort of cough (what a wonderful way to spend a weekend, hmm?). To distract myself from the humdrum days of recuperation in bed, I read Royal Airs
, something I’ve been meaning to read ever since I finished Troubled Waters (Book 1 of the Elemental Blessings series) years ago. I really enjoyed Troubled Waters—it had just the right amount of intrigue, romance, and magic—not to mention a fresh world for me to play in! By the end of reading it, I wanted to learn more about the world and I was hoping Royal Airs would take the ideas further and build more depth to the world. In some ways, Royal Airs did satisfy my curiosity a bit more, but in other ways, it just sort of fell flat.
As with Troubled Waters, Royal Airs returns us to the fascinating nation of Welce—a Venetian inspired civilization that is riddled with superstition. It is custom there, for people to ask strangers to blindly choose three random blessings from a bin full of coins and use the guidance of the coins to help them gain insight into whatever challenges they are facing at the moment. There is a sort of mysterious magic at play as each individual is blessed with one of the five elements and their associated traits so they will almost always pick out a coin from the bin that will reflect their essential elemental natures. For instance, a person of air might select coins such as vision, joy, and hope, while a person of earth might select patience, endurance, and fertility. It brings to mind a bit of the elemental fun-ness of Avatar. Also, where there were only elaymotives in Troubled Waters, Royal Airs introduces aeromotives, too, which Rafe becomes increasingly interested in.
So, why didn’t I enjoy the book more? Well, for starters, for a book with so many complex political machinations happening it moved so agonizingly slow (mind you, it could be that my patience was constantly tried by fits of coughing and my concentration punctuated by determined bouts of phlegm hacking—ugh!). For whole swaths of chapters, I felt as listless as Rafe—not sure what direction the plot was going except that at some point love between Rafe and Josetta would bloom. It felt like I was just following these characters around randomly as they partook in the minutiae of life, like shopping at the plaza, changing clothes, making food, buying gifts for each other, making light chatter with each other, scurrying around from place to place, gossiping and giggling together. So, not the most compact of stories in the spectrum of novels. I don’t mind reading about the day-to-day details of life—especially in a fantastical world where even the mundane might be interesting—but the story had too much of all of this for my taste, and it severely slowed down the pacing.
Let’s talk about the characters. Last week, as I was dropping by your blogs, a bunch of you were discussing the topic of lovable rogues/thieves/swindlers. I felt that this was what the narrative attempts to label Rafe. But, honestly, aside from a few paragraphs in the earlier chapters where he admits to readers that he might sometimes knavishly cheat in order to ensure a win, rarely does he actually do it within the timeline of the story itself. In fact, there is little to nothing that he does that is dishonorable. So, no, I don’t think Rafe has that special “charm” of being a rogue with a heart of gold beneath his rakishness. He is simply a good-ish guy who happens to live on the wrong side of town (though its the better corner of that wrong side), a guy who likes to take risks, sure, but his risks are never at the expense of others. So, there is little in the realm of grey in Rafe’s character to add tension to the story and this makes him less interesting to me. If you want a black sheep in the mix, don’t use cheap dye that comes off with the first rains
As for Josetta and her sisters—I appreciated their spirit and spunk and scrap—but they were also rather two dimensional. Also, they were kind of annoyingly morally upstanding. They never did anything wrong, and their judgment was infallible. I kind of blame the plot of the story in this case, because the plot never really tested the characters to see to what lengths they might go if things were really at stake. I never felt that Josetta actually had to worry about whether things would work out for her because before I could start worrying, things always did.
And, there’s no better sign of a story that is too easy to digest than one in which all the “good” characters instantly like each other and hate the “bad” ones. One of the moments I thought would bring a lot of tension to the plot was Rafe’s introduction to Josetta’s family. Since Josetta is a princess, surely her family will have some qualms about her taking on a lover with not much to his name. I mean, Josetta’s family consists largely of other princesses and the Primes, all of whom are no strangers to maneuvering for the power and stability of their nation—and that includes making sure their heirs are secured through the right sort of alliances. So, I must admit I was rubbing my hands in anticipation of entertaining scenes where they might try to make Rafe’s life hard. But, everyone just instantly liked him. Even grumpy, stern, overbearing Darien (despite the narrative’s attempt to make readers think otherwise, he let Rafe into the fold of the family easily enough). And the two people in the story that cause boatloads of mild-ish headaches to our main cast? Well, they were basically so disagreeable in nature that not once did anyone of our main cast fall for their trickery or sully their principled and unstained hands in associating with them more than on polite terms. *sigh* This all makes for such a vanilla story. If it’s too obvious that I should like certain characters, I’ll start to hate them (sometimes I think I sabotage my own reading enjoyment with my contrarian nature).
So, yes there were airships and attempted assassinations aplenty, but it was all mired by a strangely tension-less plot that never really achieved lift-off for me. I think I’ll still read the next book in the series (which is apparently fire themed…I’m guessing it might have to do with the sweela princess Corene and her adventures overseas…).
I would rate this 3 flying bags
Here’s an excerpt:
Rafe slipped onto the bench where Becko had perched just a minute ago and gave the girl one comprehensive glance. “Looks like you’re having an interesting evening,” he said.
Staring back with a mix of defiance and uncertainty, she lifted her hand to show him one of the dinner knives clutched in her fist. He admired the fact that she didn’t indicate she had a second weapon stashed away somewhere. Fierce enough to fight, smart enough to keep something in reserve. Even without the red hair, she would have been easy to pick out as sweela. “Who are you and what do you want from me?” she demanded.
“My name’s Rafe Adova. I rent a room here, and I play cards for money. I saw you come in and I thought it looked like you were having a bad night.”
She lowered her hand to the table, but kept her grip on the knife. “That’s one way to put it,” she said bitterly.
“You don’t have any reason to trust me, but I’d like to help you.”
“Why?” she asked, suspiciously.
“To annoy Becko,” was his prompt reply.
That made her laugh, but quickly enough she frowned again. “Why, really?”
He shrugged and, unexpectedly, gave her the truth. “Because it’s easy enough to do. Because once in a while when I needed help, a stranger gave it to me. And other times wen I needed help, no one stepped forward. And I remember what all of those times were like—the times I got help and the times I didn;t.”
She was listening closely, as if he were speaking in riddles and her only chance of survival was to solve them. “How would you help?” she asked.
“If nothing else, I can find someone to carry a message for you,” he said. “If you want, you can go up to my room—”
“I hardly think so,” she interrupted.
He shrugged. “Or I can wait with you here so no one else bothers you. The place never closes. We’d just sit here till someone shows up to get you.”
“I was trying to find my sister,” she said abruptly. “But I got lost.”
“If you crossed the Cinque to end up here, you got really lost.”
“I meant to cross the Cinque,” she said impatiently. “This is where she lives.” She looked around expressively. “Somewhere in the slums.”
Even his professional impassivity cracked at that. This gently bred rich girl had a sister who lived by the southern canals? Was the sister a prostitute? A dealer in drugs and illegal substances? It was almost impossible to credit.”
“Excuse me for saying so,” he observed, “but if she lives here, she might not be the best one to seek shelter with.”
The redhead surprised him with a grin. “She’s not that kind of person,” she said. “But that’s funny.”