A Dance of Water and Air: A Review
Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them, but when the world needed him most, he vanished.
Okay, so this isn’t exactly Avatar: The Last Airbender, but wow, does it borrow a lot from it. A Dance of Water and Air begins with Edmund finding out he’s being sent to the neighboring country, Aither, in an arranged marriage with the new queen, Hollis. Queen Hollis orders her brother Arden to spend time with Edmund. Court intrigue abounds, and when someone tries to assassinate Hollis, she and her advisers blame Edmund for it. Arden doesn’t believe it and helps Edmund escape. Edmund and Arden have fallen in love. With his betrothal to Hollis firmly broken, Arden and Edmund get engaged. That’s the basic set up without any spoilers. There will be spoilers below.
I actually really liked this book despite it being very derivative of Avatar. Edmund and his entire country, Thalassa, are water magic users. They aren’t all exclusively water magic users, but Edmund and the Royal Family is. This is a plot point that is used to set up future events. Arden and Hollis are from the air country—again they both practice air magic but other magic users also live in their country. The fire county, Tycen, is the aggressive overarching bad guy that has set off the arranged marriage between Edmund and Hollis. We don’t actually get anything about earth magic users, which was disappointing. Hopefully this will be fixed in the sequels.
The biggest problem with the magic is that it isn’t ever explained. They seem to control the elements, but if I hadn’t immediately pasted on the Avatar system of magic I’m not sure if I would have any idea of how the magic works. Which means that I am not sure how the magic works in this world. Things the reader knows after reading the book: Magic ability is genetic; the more people use magic or the stronger they are, the more their hair or eyes change color (This is not explained. It just is); if they are separated from their element it depresses them, and the reader is told that it can damage them, but we see no actual consequences; each element has a special magical creature associated with it that only users of that magic can see; the reader is introduced to the undine of the water magic users in this book. Outside of that it’s hard to know what people can or cannot do. I don’t think there was any egregious use of magic in this, but there also wasn’t enough magic used in it either.
The other problem with the book is that we don’t get enough time with the characters interacting. We get a lot of characters thinking about the time and conversations they had with other characters, but we don’t get to see most of that. Therefore, when characters make decisions, the reader doesn’t always understand why they make those decisions. The worst is Queen Hollis, whose character I just couldn’t get a grasp on. She seems to be a terrible, easily manipulated, ruler. According to Arden, he was close with her close when they were younger, but the moment she got the crown she dropped him and had a personality switch. The reader only knows her after she ascends the throne, though.
The other annoying example of this is that Edmund’s secretary, Peregrine, and Arden’s secretary, Ciaran, fall in love, but the reader never sees them interact. They exchange maybe a couple paragraphs worth of lines on the page throughout the book and are already in love when they do so. It was just a weird sub-plot to be added in without any real need or follow-through.
But I did enjoy this story. Hollis drove me crazy, as she acted irrationally throughout the book. I have a personal pet peeve with characters who don't have power making poor decisions not out of malicious intent, but from sheer stupidity. Luckily the reader doesn’t actually spend that much time with her and Arden gets a couple of moments to yell at her about how irrational she has been. Also Tycen, the fire country, attacks at the end and it’s a bit of a comeuppance moment. Most of the book is a low-stakes fantasy adventure tale, where the characters share close spaces and talk about their feeling for each in non-twee language. Also, they have long discussions about books and spend a lot of time in libraries, which I appreciate.
The book is well-written. All of the dialogue feels natural and the descriptive language works. The characters, even the ones that aren’t on the screen for long, feel like full characters. If any of those had been lacking in the writing department, the book wouldn’t have worked for me, as the plot is a bit thin. There isn’t a whole lot plot-wise in this book. My only big problem with the plot was why the heir of Thalassa was given to Aither as a betrothal in the first place. Edmund needed to learn how to rule his country and yet it was clear that he was expected to stay in Aither forever. I found that baffling.
I really liked how Aquilante wrote the representation in the book. I can’t say it’s canon or intentional that Edmund is demisexual, but when he is first describing how he feels about being betrothed he thinks about how the only time he has ever had feelings for someone was after he had spent a great deal of time with them and formed a connection. And while Arden is instantly attracted to Edmund, it takes some time before Edmund sees Arden in a romantic light. It’s very subtle and I perked right up over it. The same can be said about Arden being trans*. He just is, no one ever treats him like anything but a man.
The reader doesn’t even find out he’s trans*, in that there are no hints, not even from characters who the reader is supposed to think are bad guys, until the first time Arden and Edmund need to unclothe to go to bed and Arden needs to unbind his chest. There is a very brief moment where Arden tells Edmund that sometimes it makes a difference that he’s the type of man who has a chest to bind, but Edmund just responds that it doesn’t make a difference. And that’s it, Edmund is just demisexual and Arden is just trans* and there is no need to explain it.
Really this book read like the first 300 pages of a 600 page first book of a trilogy. By which I mean I liked it and it has all the characters and relationships and the basic world building for a longer story. I finished and immediately checked to see if the next one in the series had a release date. It doesn’t. I wish the book had been longer, that may have allowed some of the missing character interaction to exist, but as a low-stakes fantasy adventure with well-written characters it was a very enjoyable read.