A princess + a gambler = love

Royal Airs - Sharon Shinn

I enjoyed this novel. Not surprising, as Shinn is one of my favorite writers. Her new books automatically go on my To-Read list, and I own most of them. This one is the second in the author’s new series Elemental Blessings.

The story occurs several years after the first book in the series, Troubled Waters, and many familiar personages pop up on the pages. The action revolves around two central characters: Josetta and Rafe. A more disparate set of lovers is hard to imagine.

Rafe is a professional gambler, living in the slums of Chialto, the capital of Welce, and plying his card trade nightly in a semi-respectable tavern. He doesn’t like what he is doing very much (who among us likes their jobs very much?) but he is good at it and he makes a decent living. Until fate brings him in contact with Josetta, he never questions his way of life. Afterwards… things happen, and his life turns upside down. And he doesn’t even mind that, as long as his new existence includes Josetta. His first impression of her: “The door opened, and spring stepped inside.” So simple and so beautiful!

Josetta is a princess. Strong-minded and resilient, with the unswerving moral code and a kind heart, she doesn’t have any royal blood, but her mother was a queen, married to the late king, and Josetta has been in line for the throne of Welce since she was born. She doesn’t want the position though. She hates the palace, detests its endless intrigues and its scuffle for power, and spends most of her days in the shelter for the poor she operates in the slums, where she provides food, medicine, and warm beds to anyone in need. Her life is orderly and well-regulated, until she meets Rafe. Then, all bets are off, and what this princess will do for her guy is not easy to predict.

The world is interesting and original, on the verge of an industrial revolution. It incorporates automobiles and horses, sailing ships and flying planes, test pilots and homicidal princes, and of course magic, subtle but implacable.

The pacing is slower than I would like, and like most Shinn’s novels, this one is low key - a quiet love story between a young man and a young woman, lyrical and enchanting. Despite the adventurous plotline, all the escapades and brawls and general swashbuckling are only surface deep, a painted backdrop for the heroes’ journeys, which unfold inside their souls. Both Josetta and Rafe are trying to find their places in life, establish their mutual zone, and investigate their connection. Their search for each other and for the meanings of their lives is the focus of this book. 

My only objection: I don’t really believe that a princess would be allowed to manage a shelter, or a royal regent would gallivant around the countryside unescorted. The power structure of the society depicted in the book is too democratic for a kingdom, and the power players are too casual and unassuming. If the royal retinue’s fussing makes the king, then what does the lack of such a retinue signify?   

The 4 stars of my rating are comparative, but it’s not a comparison with other writers. I simply like some of Shinn’s other novels better. Still, this is a solid fantasy tale with a romantic subtext and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who likes a blend of fantasy and romance.