Book Series Review: Air Awakens by Elise Kova
A surprisingly good young adult fantasy series!
Recommended Age: 14+
Content Warnings: War themes, mild sex, and bodily harm.
Rating: 4.2/5 stars
This review will cover the entirety of the five-book series by Elise Kova. Expect some light spoilers as I will be alluding to the overall plot of the series, highlighting certain scenes, and discussing the development of certain characters.
It is a bit jarring to browse through Goodreads and see the reviews posted there on this series. You will find reviewers who rated many of these books five stars and wrote in all capitals about how this series reminded them of works by Sarah J. Maas or avatar, and about how much they loved the romance.
The other extreme includes reviewers who left two or fewer stars and claimed that this book had troublesome, toxic characters who acted more like irresponsible teenagers than adults and prattled on about how the drama was cringe-worthy.
I'm not either of these reviewers, so let's clear the air now: Elise Kova is not the second Sarah J. Maas. This is not a series that focuses on romance as its driving force. ( My opinion, not fact. )
This series definitely shares ideas and themes with Avatar: The Last Airbender in some very good ways.
The main character's ages range from 17 to 25 and it was marketed towards an older young adult audience, so you bet your ass that these characters are going to have dramatic moments and times of personal crisis that may come off as cringe-worthy because most of us in real life were like that in our teen/young adult years and that is what is relatable!
This is why I loved this series. It stayed true to the human condition despite the fantastical setting: humans make mistakes, and humans cannot be categorized into a black and white morality. This is especially true of young adults who will spend years trying to figure out who they are and what they want.
Now, onto the review!
I was really skeptical when I first started reading Air Awakens. I felt like it was going to be yet another promising fantasy world shadowed by lovestruck characters. Anyone who has read a lot of YA knows this feeling, and there was a point a few chapters in that I thought about dropping the first book entirely because I felt it was going in that direction.
Funny enough, it was when I reached that point that the author threw those ideas and expectations out of the window...quite literally.
It was at a scene when the protagonist, library apprentice Vhalla Yarl, and the supposed "love interest", Crown Prince Aldrik Solaris, had finally met for the first time ( they had exchanged letters prior to this for context without Vhalla knowing who was writing her ) and said love interest was taking Vhalla up to the top of one of the towers in the castle. ( I won't spoil the reason why this is happening, but be aware I will be spoiling what happens after! )
It comes off as a possible late-night tirade between two romantic parties that could lead to their first kiss ( which was why I was understandably ready to be done with the book ) but then Aldrik does something unbelievable.
He throws Vhalla from the tower.
I repeat, THE LOVE INTEREST THREW THE PROTAGONIST FROM LETHAL HEIGHT OFF OF A TOWER.
This is when I went from "Oh god, it's insta-love again" to "OH MY GOD HE DID WHAT?" and proceeded to gleefully laugh into the next several pages.
The setup to this is honestly hilariously great, and it broke the skepticism I had as the consequences of this singular moment rolled on into the future chapters. It felt like the author chucked every expectation for a generic YA fantasy romance down the side of the tower with Vhalla.
It's a lesson learned for the reader: Vhalla is young and - while well-read - has no experience whatsoever in the real world, and will naively assume things that hold no sway over reality at large. Aldrik on the other hand has grown up under the shadow of a conquerer king who has had a lavish lifestyle that brought him up as someone who believes he is above everyone else.
Basically, a naive bookworm meets an arrogant rich boy, and it's pure character gold.
This is where the characters start, and throughout the series, they change as they interact with more people and more places. When romance does blossom between them, it is only after this growth has started, and after both of their worldly perspectives begin to switch thanks to them sharing those perspectives with each other.
It did hit your stereotypical tropes here and there, but over and over again, Elise Kova would remind you that this wasn't some Disney fairytale or fluffy romance. From terrorist attacks to forced conscriptions, from courtly betrayals and assassination attempts, and even at one point a deadly disease sweeping the castle...you really don't get many breaks to have those "fluffy" romance scenes. So when you do get quiet moments with the characters, you can't help but relish them.
My Thoughts on the Overall Plot and Themes
As the series marched on, Kova did an incredible job addressing the differing perspectives on war from the wide cast of characters.
The Empire of Solaris is close to conquering the entire continent, and the depiction of the battles between them and the last bastion of the independent northern country was done realistically. It can get gruesome at times, but never is it written distastefully. There were many times I felt torn on the situation, and toward the end of the major conflict, I was crossing my fingers that it all would just end to save the characters on both sides from suffering any longer.
This led me to the conclusion that the theme of war was just as much of a driving force if not more than the bond between Vhalla and Aldrik. Take away the romance and you still have a solid story, minus some well-written character development. Take away the terror attacks and battle sieges where characters discuss the morality of conquering for the sake of "unification" that leaves scars on both the land and the people for generations to come? You would lose so much of the impact that this story has.
What's interesting is that more often than not, Kova manages to weave the war themes into the romance between Vhalla and Aldrik. Whether it's questions about choosing their love over what might be best for the kingdom or calling out each other for questionable desicions on the battlefield, it really becomes an intriguing combination that you don't see often in YA.
War also takes its toll on the characters in the form of trauma and death. Don't get attached to too many characters, because Kova knows how to wield the chopping block in her favor.
As for the plot? It felt fast-paced without throwing away quiet moments needed for certain characters to grow, and for the readers to breathe. I constantly felt sucked into the world and the story and kept turning the pages well into the night.
There's not much more to say on the plot, other than if you were hoping for a more heavy focus on romance with "steamy" scenes, I would not recommend this series for you. Kova never spends more than a page at a time when it comes to spicy scenes, and when it comes down to the actual sex, it might be a few paragraphs.
For me personally, as a fantasy romance lover, this was a nice change. The non-sex scenes between Vhalla and Aldrik were some of my favorite I ever read between a YA couple, and I appreciated Kova's focus on growing them both as people through their relationship.
The End and Final Thoughts
The final big moments in the series felt really epic and well-deserved. The world-building was done in such a way that it slowly revealed every piece you needed to know to understand everything that happens in the final acts.
Most characters get a nice ending to their respective arcs, with a few being left open-ended to prepare for the sequel series. Others are left in the dark, with scars both physical and mental still in the process of healing, which left a bitter-sweet feeling for me rather than disappointment.
Again, Kova uses realistic events and characters in her story that drives home the grounded feeling that this fantastical series brings. You don't have to like the fact that not everyone gets a happily ever after, but I felt it was genuine.
In conclusion, I highly recommend this series to any YA fantasy romance lover who wants something a bit more serious and epic than the typical fluff, and to those who just like epic fantasy in general.
I'm currently into book two in the sequel series: Vortex Chronicles, which brings back many of these characters alongside a fresh cast. More and more I'm seeing influences from the epic fantasy genre with that feel-good splash of romance, and I'm enjoying myself quite a bit!
If you wish to see that review for the following series ( give me a few weeks to finish it first! ), let me know by dropping a like, leaving a tip, or sharing this review with others!
If you want to know what other YA books I recommend for both epic fantasy and fantasy romance lovers, check these out below!