Royal Airs is the second book in Sharon Shinn’s ELEMENTAL BLESSINGS series. I loved the first book, Troubled Waters, which was a light romantic fantasy that told the story of Zoe Ardelay, a young woman who was brought to the royal court of Welce to be the fifth wife of its king. She discovered that she had power over the element of water and, using the personality traits that her water spirit gave her, she successfully navigated the dangers of the court and found true love. I’ll be reading that book again someday.
Royal Airs takes place after the events of Troubled Waters, but it can stand alone. Many of the characters overlap, but this is a separate story, not a direct sequel. In Royal Airs we become acquainted with more of the princesses of the five families of Welce. Corene is a young lady who jumps from her stepfather’s carriage after he tries to molest her. Seeking refuge in a casino, she meets a young free-spirited gambler named Rafe who protects her from other men until her stepsister Josetta, another princess, arrives to collect her. Later, when Rafe is nearly killed by unknown villains and brought to the homeless shelter that Josetta runs, the girls have a chance to repay the debt. The girls and Rafe soon become friends and get involved with all the usual court intrigue of Welce. There are scheming mothers, imposters, false princesses, and hidden princes.
Our young heroes are likable folks, but not as likeable as Zoe and Darien from Troubled Waters (Zoe and Darien also appear in Royal Airs and they steal the spotlight when they’re on stage). Corene is strong-willed and courageous; Josetta is a little bit dull, but she’s kind-hearted and admirable because she feels most content when she’s helping the city’s outcasts; Rafe starts out as a rogue but when he meets Josetta he suddenly has the motivation to do more with his life than sit in a bar and play cards. I’m not sure why Josetta and Rafe are drawn to each other since they have nothing in common, but it’s sweet to see them interact with each other and, in doing so, make each other better people.
I had more trouble with the plot. There were too many aspects that were predictable (e.g. SPOILER, highlight if you want to see it: Rafe is a long-lost prince. I saw that coming from just about page three) and even more that were hard to believe. Most importantly, I didn’t believe in the romance between Rafe and Josetta. I never felt it — there was absolutely no chemistry, especially compared to Zoe and Darien from Troubled Waters. Also, situations were contrived to put Josetta and Rafe together in extremely unlikely circumstances. I couldn’t get absorbed in the story because I kept noticing how the plot had to be maneuvered to get Rafe and Josetta near each other. Cranes and excavators were nearly required.
I also had trouble figuring out who the target audience is for Royal Airs. It is marketed to adults, not to teens, and this seems correct because of the sexual situations, yet the princesses are all young adults (or they seem like it) and much of the plot and dialogue is juvenile. Even the discussions that the adult leaders of the country have amongst themselves are often silly and emotional. Except for the sex, Royal Airs feels YA. I think Shinn should have left out the sex and marketed it to teens.
Royal Airs has a nice message (especially for teens): it’s not what you inherit that makes you worthy, but what you do with your life. I thought that truth was undermined in the end, though, because (another SPOILER, highlight if you want to read it:) due to his genetics, Rafe turns out to be a prince after all.
Jennifer Van Dyck narrates Audible Studio’s version of Royal Airs. She uses a pleasant low-pitched voice for the narrative, which I really like, but she uses an intense angsty tone for some of the characters (such as Corene) that tends to cloy after a while and may have contributed to my feeling that this seems like a Young Adult story. It’s not enough to keep me from recommending the audio version, though, and I will pick up the next book in that format. I liked the first book a lot and these books seem to stand alone well enough. I’m hoping that book three, Jeweled Fire, which focuses on Corene, will be back up to the standard of the first book.
This sequel to Troubled Waters is set five years after the first book ends, and focuses on a different set of main characters: Josette, one of the princesses from the first book, who spends most of her time running a shelter for the poor, and Rafe, a professional gambler with a mysterious past, who lives in the slums. Rafe is kind of an aimless, ambitionless sort who lives from card game to card game off his winnings, but (of course) he has a noble, chivalrous streak, so when a young girl (Corene from the first book) stumbles into his bar, he decides to protect her from trouble. Josetta finds her with Rafe, and from there Rafe’s path begins to frequently cross with the nobility, especially Josetta. And a lot of old secrets begin to come to light.
Royal Airs suffers a bit from Sequelitis: the first book was so good, and this one just seems weak by comparison, though it really isn’t a bad book. I think the main problem is that Rafe and Josetta just aren’t as compelling main characters as Darien and Zoe from Troubled Waters. Despite all her good works with the homeless shelter, Josette is a quiet, cautious character who is sometimes a little colorless. And I got a little tired of reading about how aimless Rafe was at first and then how he was finding new meaning and purpose in life, every time he wasn’t getting knifed, shot, crashing an airplane (early industrial age society here) or otherwise getting injured in some new life-threatening way.
But every time Zoe or Darien or even Corene shows up in this story, things get more intense and interesting. (It seems a given that Corene will be the main character in the next installment in this series, so maybe this is a good sign for things to come.)
Another problem for me was that a key plot point that hinges on a problematic tradition in a neighboring kingdom. — that society will tolerate only an heir to the throne and a spare: all others with a claim to the throne are expected to take their own lives, or they’ll be forcibly put to death. Supposedly this is supposed to decrease contention and turmoil over the throne, but it felt like an artificial plot device to me, rather than a realistic tradition.
The ending is flirting with being a cliffhanger: while most of the story is wrapped up reasonably well, one subplot is thrown way open at the last moment, and left for resolution in the next book, Jeweled Fire.
Despite these weaknesses, Royal Airs was still an enjoyable read for me, if a little bland at times. There’s some interesting political intriguing, and Sharon Shinn has created an unusual, well-built fantasy world.
Elemental Blessings — (2010-2016) Publisher: The author of the Twelve Hours series welcomes readers to a new fantasy world, where the elements rule. Zoe Ardelay receives astonishing and unwelcome news: she has been chosen to become the king’s fifth wife. Forced to go to the royal city, she manages to slip away and hide on the shores of the mighty river. It’s there that Zoe realizes she is a coru prime ruled by the elemental sign of water. She must return to the palace, not as an unwilling bride for the king, but a woman with power in her own right. But as Zoe unlocks more of the mysteries of her blood — and the secrets of the royal family — she must decide how to use her great power to rise above the deceptions and intrigue of the royal court.