The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt
Stephen Hunt‘s The Court of the Air is a fantasy novel in the steampunk subgenre. The story is set in a gritty world where steam- and clockwork-powered devices are the height of technology and where an aerial navy of military balloons keeps the nation of Jackals safe from the dirty communist Quatréshiftians. Actually, the “Shifties” are not quite communist, per se; they seem based on the French revolutionaries, complete with a penchant for decapitating the ruling classes.
We follow the separate yet concurrent adventures of two orphans, Oliver and Molly, as they dodge agents of the Big Brother-like Court of the Air and a dark underworld cult bent on the world domination. It’s a sort of Oliver Twist meets the X-men in Gotham City, if you can imagine such a thing.
There is a lot to like about The Court of the Air. The writing is tight and descriptive. The characters are varied and unique, for the most part. The world is original and quite detailed. There are plots and sub-plots, twists and intrigues.
The only thing I really didn’t like about The Court of the Air ― or the second book, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, for that matter ― was that there seemed to be an underlying thread of anger throughout it. The characters are an angry lot and many of their actions are brutal. But it’s not just the brutality that bugs me; it’s the self-righteousness of the characters when killing off their enemies. There is an astounding lack of mercy shown by the supposed good guys. It really is quite jingoistic, and the writing gets more overwrought as you get towards the end of the book. Here’s a snippet:
We have something they don’t… We fight as free citizens of Jackals, not as slaves of a king or a first committee or caliph.’ He pulled one of his belt pistols out and the lion of Jackals on the handle seemed to suck in the light of the afternoon, drawing down rays of sunlight that rotated, blinding the troops with a brilliance they had never known before. ‘We will not suffer the heel of tyranny, we will not bend to unworthy gods, we will not see an evil without striking it down, and we will not pass meekly into the long face of darkness that is endangering our land. Because we are Jackelians ― and our soul of freedom can never, never be conquered.
And so on. It wouldn’t be so bad, but the characters are totally hypocritical. They supposedly stand for all these things, yet the previous 500 pages of the book show just how little they truly live by them. All in all, The Court of the Air deteriorated as it progressed. Part of this is down to personal tastes — I just couldn’t relate to the author’s fetish for self-righteous bloodbaths. The writing itself was still effective, however, — it’s more the direction it takes that bothered me. Oh, also the great unveiling of the sneaky bits at the end was a let down. Basically one character spells out some of the plot twists in a paragraph of monologue and you get to think, “Huh. Where did that all come from?” and then it ends.
It’s hard for me to rate The Court of the Air. It is a well-written novel filled with great ideas and originality, but ruined by some of the underlying themes and ideals. I quite enjoyed reading most of it, though I wouldn’t read it a second time.
Mark Pawlyszyn, one of our earliest guest reviewers, has always tended toward the creative side of life and had careers in music and painting before settling into his current position as the owner of Unique Images Photography. Mark has visited and lived in twelve countries and can ask for directions to the bathroom in several languages. He currently lives in Canada with his wife, Sherri.
Jackelian — (2007-2015) Stand-alone novels set in the same world. Publisher: When streetwise Molly Templar witnesses a brutal murder at the brothel she has recently been apprenticed to, her first instinct is to run back to the poorhouse where she grew up. But there she finds her fellow orphans butchered, and it slowly dawns on her that she was the real target of the attack. For Molly is a special little girl, and she carries a secret that marks her out for destruction by enemies of the state. Oliver Brooks has led a sheltered existence in the backwater home of his merchant uncle. But when he is framed for his only relative’s murder he is forced to flee for his life, accompanied by an agent of the mysterious Court of the Air. Chased across the country, Oliver finds himself in the company of thieves, outlaws and spies, and gradually learns more about the secret that has blighted his life. Soon Molly and Oliver will find themselves battling a grave threat to civilization, an ancient power thought to have been quelled millennia ago. Their enemies are ruthless and myriad, but the two orphans are also aided by indomitable friends in this endlessly inventive tale full of drama, intrigue, and adventure. The Court of the Air is a rollicking adventure set in a fantastical Dickensian clockwork universe that will appeal to fans of Susanna Clarke and Philip Pullman.
Yep, which is why I'm willing to give a sequel a shot
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