At first I was like "Heck yeah, Avatar: The Last Airbender!" when I saw that elemental powers was going to be a part of this.
Um...no. But, I'd say, equally entertaining.
I usually hate summarizing, but just bear with me.
In the world of Welce, there are five elements: air, wood, fire, water, and earth. Each one has its associated personality traits, and the year of Welce is divided into five seasons instead of four, named for each element. Scattered throughout the kingdom are temples, each with a barrel of coins labeled with aforementioned personality traits, which works sort of like a DIY fortune-telling; whether or not the coins drawn by the characters actually foretell events to come is up to the reader to interpret, but it does a marvelous job of setting the tone and provides an excellent tension breaker throughout the story. What element group each person belongs to is central to personal identity, and various associations of each are the subject of jokes, of conversations, and of verbal sparring.
Dialogue is a major component of Shinn's storytelling style, and it drew me in quickly, making it easy to dissipate whatever preconceptions I had going in.
I had some fun trying to pin down the world. It's a bit of a jumbled mix in terms of cultural inspiration, but comes vividly through the pages, even with the exposition. As the story went on I realized that the reason for that is its very dependable self-consistency. At one point, it will be mentioned that the homeless squatters on the river move out whenever foreign dignitaries enter the capital city, and sure enough, thirty pages later, it actually happens. Magic is sparse, but fascinating quirks mark Chialto as a truly fantastical city apart from any kind the reader is likely to have encountered elsewhere. The one that sticks out to me are three old ladies who publicly buy and sell information indiscriminately, and can mysteriously discern whether their clients/customers are telling the truth. It sounds weird, but when we see it happen again and again, we go from slight disbelief to suspending that disbelief to learning to trust entirely the world that Shinn has laid out for us.
I think I managed to really firmly settle into the story about a third of the way into it. Up until then, it's mostly an exploration of the setting, especially the capital city, which reminds me a lot of Dragon Slippers. Some readers might accuse the lack of high stakes of missing any real conflict, but I felt it as a merciful lack of forced tension, and the landscape of Chialto is so colorful anyway that I can still imagine sinking into it if I should ever do a reread. After that, the plot starts to pick up with political intrigue that most fantasy readers should recognize right off the bat, and the novelty wears off--but then there's the pull of reading a familiar story, written with such polished execution, easing in and out of plot twists so smoothly that I just lost myself in the flow of things.
A word about the social aspect of the world of Welce, because I think it's worth noting.
Societal constraints are mostly absent here--or at least it doesn't affect the characters' emotional agency, even if it does dictate their actions. After Zoe becomes prime, she encounters the pettiness of court intrigue, but also has the freedom to escape it whenever she pleases. There are class distinctions of course, this being a monarchy, but it doesn't seem to be the source of any social superiority. The homeless people of Chialto are described like this:
There was surprisingly little crime along the river, mostly because the squatters had nothing to steal, and a loose sense of community. The residents looked out for each other, sharing food when they had it, sympathy when they didn't. There were women who acted as nurses and midwives when medical emergencies arose. There were men who patrolled the flats daily, making sure no one grew too rough, though you had to pay them a few coppers every [nine-day week] to make sure you were the ones they watched out for.
All of them had a love for the river. It was said not a soul camped out on the Marisi who was not coru [water] to the core.
Sounds kind of idealistic, doesn't it? That's what makes this book so comforting to read, because all the dark stuff--the threat of starvation, class strife and resentment, etc.--are basically removed in what's basically an alternate reality. Political intrigue, unlike a book like A Game of Thrones, does not have large-scale consequences. It's a world that couldn't possibly exist, but one that's pleasantly compelling. Even more so because somehow, again, Shinn lets us see how it would function for the characters who live in it. Rowling tried the same thing, but I think it works better here when it's supporting a much more solid and plot-hole-less story, and when magic is used more suggestively as a force of nature than as a blunt practical weapon.
Also a word on the romance, which I confess with no small amount of embarrassment had me chomping on my fingernails.
As reported by many reviewers, it took up a tiny part of the story. I'd go so far as to say that it's so thoroughly incorporated that it's not even really a separate component of the plot. Speaking of which, by the way--is it a spoiler when you can see something coming from a mile away? I'm going to take the plunge and say no.
"And yet, if I am to judge solely by the great grief you showed upon [your father's] death, you loved him very much," Darien said. "He must have loved you extravagantly to earn so much affection from you."
Which of course giddily registered in my mind as "if someone else earned your love, that means I can, too."
So yeah, a lot of Zoe and Darien's relationship dynamic is subtextual. That's what I enjoyed about it, the intellectual as well as the emotional chemistry that plays out through the unwinding of the main plot. There's a feeling of destiny to it, as you can recognize almost immediately the Zoe's first prospective husbands are never going to be realized, and that Darien is really Zoe's only equal in the story, the only person who appreciates the spirit that the reader shares through her perspective. Of course, that appreciation is mixed--maybe even produced?--by personality conflict,and the funniest parts for me were when Zoe gets the upper hand and pokes holes in his stiff-upper-lip facade. Then it'll shift balance again, over and over in cycles to the point where they're literally joking about it.
All around a really self-indulgent story, but no one has a problem with tasty dessert if it's well crafted, hmm?