The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt

(6.0/10)

Stephen Hunt’s first book in his Jackellian series, The Court of the Air, is a curious beast and one in which I oscillated in my love-hate of to the very last page.

Hunt published the book with Harper-Collins in 2007, having already built up a profile through his sci-fi review/forum. In many ways it has the hallmarks of a first novel - lack of discipline, a need to show ideas and originality, and a clunkiness in characterisation. The story is set within a Steampunk world - in that it has steam technology and Victoriana elements/ethos—mixed with a sizeable fantasy element. There is magic - in the form of worldsingers (druidic individuals who utilise earth power) and feys (who are those mutated by the magical fey mist in some way or other). The latter have the feeling of mutant superheroes akin to Marvel’s The X-men, and are feared and controlled by the administration in the nation of Jackals. In addition, there are non-human races - the mechanical Steammen, the crustacean Craynarbians to mention two. There is a complex political system, evidently emulating Napoleonic era history, with Jackals (which I suppose to be British Empire), Quatershift (French, I assume), Catosian League, Kikkoscio Empire and other countries mentioned. Throw in some mystical characters, gods, spirits, secret orders, military divisions, anarchists, communists and you start to get the sense of the complexity of the setting.

The story separately follows two orphans, Molly and Oliver, who meet up only once transiently in the book. Molly is being chased by a professional assassin for some reason related to her blood, which feeds directly into the main conspiracy plot of the book. Oliver is a fey, by virtue of an accident wherein he crashed through the fey-wall and survived, and he also goes on the run in the company of Harry Stave, a roguish character who works for the mysterious Court of the Air.

The continual running from a variety of pursuers allows Hunt to take us on a guided tour through his complex world, courtesy of some (at times) contrived last moment escapes. And Hunt’s supporting characters saved the book for me. His vivid imagination allows a range of quirky characters - the excellent Commodore Black, the aforementioned Harry Stave, the pumped-up Jamie Wildrake, a selection of Steammen, the armourer Mother Loade, and the deformed fey, The Whisperer. Unfortunately they are there to compensate for the lack-lustre characterisation of the two main characters, whom by the end of the sizeable book I still felt estranged from. And that is the book’s main fault. The superb imagination that saturates the pages seems to have distracted from character development and consistency in Oliver and Molly. Oliver especially seems to fluctuate between teenager, rebel, child of the universe and Conan the Barbarian. The volume of detail in this book is fine, there are so many excellent ideas, but the delivery is chaotic and overpowering. The first quarter of the book is near bewildering, bouncing from one idea to another like a literary Tigger. It’s not that I can’t gel with complex settings (Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon was an intricate book where you are thrown in part way through the story, with a backdrop of many millennia, and I loved that). It’s just they need to be set out and stabilised before trashing them with an apocalyptic/ conspiracy storyline.

The alternate world setting is curious - Hunt has the odd technique of replicating real world events in his world (a king hiding up a tree to escape Parliamentarians; the civil war) yet superimposes a history that is clearly not our own alongside it (an ancient insect-worshipping culture buried underground). Personally it wasn’t quite to my taste, nor was some of the rationale behind the technology (a pseudo-computer and internet using punchcards; a race of sentient robots, yet a steam-tech society; how magic is used in some aspects of society, yet hasn’t essentially advanced the technological or scientific development).

By the end of the book, it has settled to some degree and the story concludes well. I liked what Hunt has created, and plan to read the other books in the hope he has received more aggressive editing in those. The pace of the books and its almost graphic-novel vibe is enjoyable, and ultimately that outweighed some of my frustrations with his work.

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