Excerpt and Essay from Royal Airs, by Sharon Shinn
Creatures of Air and Spirit
By Sharon Shinn
My new book Royal Airs, like Troubled Waters before it, takes place in the world of Welce, where everyone is born with an affiliation for one of the elements of air, water, earth, fire, or wood. The five elements correspond with physical realms as well—water correlates with blood, air with spirit, earth with flesh, wood with bone, and fire with mind. These elemental affiliations tend to shape people's personalities and have some bearing on the life choices they make.
For instance, a man who is coru—ruled by blood and water—is often impetuous, fluid, and quick to change course. He might take a job as a sailor or a surgeon. A woman who is elay, a creature of air and spirit, might be ethereal, dreamy, and often lost in thought. She's likely to be a reformer, a crusader, or a visionary.
Royal Airs takes place five years after the tumultuous events that capped the story of Troubled Waters. In particular, it follows Princess Josetta, who had been considered the leading heir for the throne until several of the old king's secrets were revealed. Since she's no longer directly in line for the crown, she's trying to figure out what to do with her life. She'd always been diffident and uneasy at court, and now she wants to live a life that's filled with meaning and true to her elay heritage. So she's moved to the slums to open a homeless shelter that provides a haven for people who are desperate and abandoned. And she won't be dissuaded from following her passion, even when the regent wants her to give up the shelter. Even when she falls in love with an intriguing stranger named Rafe who appears to have no elemental affiliations at all.
It was fun to build characters around the five elements and find ways to make them share certain traits will still retaining distinct personalities. Royal Airs features two major elay characters and one minor one, but they're radically different from each other. Josetta is quiet, focused, tolerant, and kind; she draws strength from the idea that she is doing good in the world. By contrast, the powerful, aging queen Elidon is elay in a way that "hardly shows," as someone else comments. She's not particularly spiritual or ethereal, but she is a visionary. Like a great athlete, she can see the whole playing field and determine which moves will result in the outcome she wants; she's a master strategist who never takes her eyes off the prize.
But my favorite elay character to write about is Kayle Dochenza. He appears briefly in Troubled Waters as head of the Dochenza clan, but he's mostly known as a sort of mad inventor. Welce is on the cusp of industrialization, and Kayle is leading the charge. He's built the first "elaymotives"—automobile prototypes that run on the airy element of natural gas—and now he's experimenting with flying machines. He's contrary, peculiar, and perpetually distracted, until something catches his wayward attention and he becomes uncomfortably focused. Kayle's the first one who suspects Rafe's true identity and he is instrumental in changing Rafe's life. Which helps turn Josetta's life in a wholly unexpected direction...