Cool Things: Elemental Blessings

Okay, let’s just get this out in the open right now – I’m not a big fan of romance novels. They’re typically predictable and unrealistic not to mention the fact that, put bluntly, I’m male and not the target demographic. That said, it’s not like I dislike romance per se, just the way a lot of romance novels present it. An in depth analysis of this, and why I dislike it, might be the topic of a Genrely Speaking post one day, so we’ll let that subject lie.

Instead, let’s look at a romance series I have taken a liking to – Sharon Shinn’s Elemental Blessings novels.

These novels fall into a subgenre I’ll call fantastic romance, though that term technically applies to 99% of everything in the romance genre,  and it’s set in a totally fictional world. While Chialto lacks magic in the sense that most fantasy readers are familiar with, it does have an interesting way of breaking down the people who live there.

The people of Chialto are classified into the five elements of Chinese alchemy (well, very nearly as Shinn chose to replace metal with earth). The classifications of fire, water, air, earth and wood, and their attendant characteristics, will sound very familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a personality quiz, but they also serve a more philosophical purpose, helping people decide on courses of action and also embodying blessings people can expect in life.

Shinn builds a world full of culture and myth. It’s not just the elemental take on personality assessment. The blessings the series takes its name from is an interesting kind of fortune telling, with people pulling coins stamped with their blessings from baskets or barrels to get some hint of what the future has to bring – everything from travel and change to power and triumph and, of course, love. Add in the significance of the numbers three, five and eight, a chaotic and stormy political situation as king and queens fight over throne and succession, and powerful noble families falling in and out of favor and it all starts to look quite dizzying.

Not to worry. While Chialto is an incredibly rich backdrop for stories it is still just that – the backdrop. Each of the two stories (so far) set there is careful to keep the attention firmly on much more familiar things. A devoted daughter who has just lost her father. A man too stoic to speak plainly and loyal to a fault. A woman with great compassion in difficult circumstances. A boy who never quite found a reason to grow up even as he approaches his third decade of life.

These are the kinds of people who inherit Shinn’s world. They bounce off of each other in odd and surprising ways. There is little of fate at work, and a lot of the chaos and unpredictability of day to day life. Rarely are there breathy speeches or banal flirting. But the connections between the characters are no less deep or convincing for it – in fact, I would venture to say that they are much, much stronger.

Oh, and one of the girls calls on the river to flood a city. That’s pretty awesome, if you’re in to that kind of thing.

But if it’s not, don’t worry as that’s not a major focus of the books, either. If you like romance, political intrigue or fantastic world building, I would highly recommend this series.

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