My rating: 4,5 stars.
Air Awakens kept popping up in my recommendations at Goodreads, and although I had initially DNF’ed my Kindle-sample, the growing hype caught my interest, and I ended up enjoying the story immensely.
Our protagonist, 17-year-old Vhalla Yarl, is an apprentice at the imperial library. The story takes its beginning with Vhalla being summoned late one night, in order to scour the library for information on certain magic and poisons along with her fellow apprentices. One of the princes has been severely wounded in combat, and Vhalla, believing that the prince in question is Baldair, whom she has a small crush on, gives everything she has in order to help save him.
It turns out, however, that the person in question is the crown prince, Aldrik. In contrast to his younger brother’s easygoing, charming nature, Aldrik is reputedly snobbish, manipulative and ruthless, and people tend to fear him due to his magical powers. While struggling to save the prince, Vhalla was inadvertently drawing upon magical abilities she didn’t know she had, unaware that she has created a bond between Aldrik and herself. From this point on, the two characters are inescapably linked.
Having all sorts of prejudices against magic and sorcerers, Vhalla struggles to accept the fact that she’s a sorcerer herself. She’s torn between the need to stay in her comfort zone, and the need to satisfy her curiosity. As scary as the prospect is of leaving her library apprenticeship for a life working, living and training as a sorcerer, Vhalla can’t help being drawn into this new and intriguing world, when the crown prince takes it upon himself to become her mentor. As it turns out, it’s a path fraught with difficulties and Vhalla soon discovers that she, being the first Windwalker in a very long time, attracts the attention of people, who see her as a nothing other than a potential danger or a tool to be used in the service of the Empire Solaris.
In Air Awakens, magical powers are aligned with the elements of earth (Groundbreakers), fire (Firebearers), water (Waterrunners) and air (Windwalkers). Vhalla is the first known Airwalker to have her powers awaken in almost 150 years. Aldrik is a Firebearer. He’s powerful, skilled and has an extensive knowledge of magic. It is through his teaching that Vhalla begins to understand her magic.
The magical system is not particularly innovative – the idea of the elemental alignment is quite common, as is the concept of the unbreakable bond (magical or otherwise). However, it doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the story, as the system functions in an elegant, seamless way, and although the characters do talk about magical theory from time to time, it isn’t the prime focus of the story.
The social perception of magic does, however, play a significant role in the development of the plot. In the south, where the capital (and the castle) is located, people tend to view sorcery with wariness and in some cases even fear and contempt. In other parts of the realm (most prominently in the West), sorcerers are in held much higher regard. Bearing in mind that all Windwalkers (at least the ones who were known to be such) were imprisoned and executed 150 years prior to Vhalla’s awakening, and that she’s the first one to emerge since then, she’s even more likely than any other type of sorcerer to become the target of prejudice and distrust. The latent threat becomes more pronounced as the story progresses, although Vhalla has the firm support of the other sorcerers of the Tower.
The “magic is outlawed” or “magic is viewed as suspect” trope is quite common in fantasy literature these days, Throne of Glass and The Orphan Queen being examples. That’s not a problem, though – I rather like the dynamic it creates in this particular story: as Vhalla begins to reconsider her own opinion of sorcery, while becoming even more of an outsider in her own circle of friends and co-apprentices (and later on in society at large), her character develops and becomes much more complex and interesting. By being forced to adapt and recreate her sense of self, Vhalla becomes very relatable and appealing.
The relationship between Aldrik and Vhalla is one of the things I like the best about this story. The romance is nice and slow-burning. Aldrik has the “bad boy vibe”, but Kova lets him grow into a much more vulnerable, caring and empathic character, as he becomes enthralled with Vhalla and her openminded, trusting way of being. Due to the fact that the story is told with Vhalla as viewpoint character, much of Aldrik’s plotting and reasoning is hidden from her (and us), which makes for some interesting revelations along the way!
There’s very little I didn’t like about this book. There is, however, the matter of Sareem – Vhalla’s colleague at the imperial library. He seems like a nice guy, although he gives Vhalla a bit of a hard time when she reveals her magical abilities to him, but she ends up treating him really poorly, and I actually liked her less because of that. I understand that a character needs to be flawed in some way for them to be able to grow, but some of Vhalla’s choices in regard to Sareem just made her seem indecisive in a very juvenile, spineless manner. She does improve, though, so it’s a somewhat minor matter.
Also, I had some troubles with the pacing, which was somewhat inconsistent. It became apparent when I read the sequel, Fire Falling, that much more time had passed during AA than I’d expected. It made for some confusion, but it’s not something which ruins my grasp of the plot.
All in all: Air Awakens is a finely crafted, emotionally engaging (even for an old fart like me) fantasy novel, which had me flipping pages frantically. Kudos to Elise Kova for such a kick-ass debut.