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Monday, May 7, 2007

"The Court of the Air" by Stephen Hunt

Official Stephen Hunt Website
Buy “The Court of the AirHERE
Read Sample Chapters One & Two
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For a little while now, I’ve been hearing about this novel called “The Court of the Air”, which has been mentioned in the same breath as Charles Dickens, Philip Pullman of His Dark Materials fame and Susanna Clarke, author of the Hugo Award-winning “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell”. Lofty company indeed. So, intrigued, I finally got my hands on a copy and I’m very glad I did. Written by Stephen Hunt, “The Court of the Air” is a fascinating SF/fantasy hybrid that should firmly place the little-known writer on the speculative fiction map – Stephen cut his teeth in the early 90s with numerous short stories in various genre magazines, has one other published novel in the fantasy 'For the Crown and the Dragon', winner of the 1994 WH Smith New Talent Award, and is also the founder behind the science fiction/fantasy website SF Crowsnest.

Let’s start with the obvious. “The Court of the Air” is noticeably influenced by Dickens with its Victorian setting and other ‘Dickensian’ touches (names, sociopolitical themes, etc.), except the world is one that Charles would probably not recognize. Unlike Susanna Clarke’s novel where the history has been altered just a bit to fit in magic, Stephen Hunt’s world has been completely reinvented through science fiction/fantasy imaginings, though it’s not hard to recognize what specific nations (Britain, Arabia, Ireland, Aztecs and even Atlantis), governments, law enforcement, militaries, religions, technology and other familiar everyday concepts are played around with. Of these, Steampunk is a prominent influence of “The Court of the Air”, represented by robots – steammen as they are known in the book – and other steam-powered technologies like airships, submarines and weaponry that bring to mind H.G. Wells or Jules Verne, though truthfully I was reminded more of such Japanese anime films as “Metropolis” and “Steamboy”. I was also reminded a lot of the Final Fantasy video games, because like the RPG series, magic plays just as important a role in “The Court of the Air” as the machines do, embodied by Worldsingers (wizards), feybreed (humans given super powers by Feymist), the Special Guard (feybreed controlled by Worldsingers to act as guardians of the Parliament), leylines (sources of magic), demigods and other magical elements. Additionally, much like the FF games, “The Court of the Air” features youthful protagonists who embark on epic quests against great evils, and along the way, develop god-like powers that manifest during the story’s pivotal moments. On top of that, I was even reminded some of the Tom Swift books I used to read, the Indiana Jones films because of the pulp-like spirit of adventure that they share, and I can even see a bit of The Wizard of Oz wonderment in there as well. All in all, I was thoroughly absorbed with the world of “The Court of the Air”, particularly the first 200-300 pages, where we’re introduced to the many different cogs that make up the Kingdom of Jackals, with some of my favorite concepts being the extremist communist philosophy that is depicted, a secret organization (The Court of the Air) that ‘watches/mediates’ from the skies above and the way the steammen are portrayed, not just as machines striving for autonomy, but as actual living creatures that think, feel, possess souls and have their own gods. I will admit though that understanding everything can be a bit daunting at first, since you’re immediately inundated with countless people, places, ideas and jargon to process, all of it with very little exposition, which is a shame since I wish things like the Court of the Air, the Jackals’ history, the feymist, the Observer, etc., were further explained. I also wish there was a map and a glossary, which I think would have helped to authenticate the world and their lack of might be an issue with some readers because of the book’s complexity.

Okay, so we’ve established what kind of world “The Court of the Air” is set in, and what I feel are some of its influences/comparisons, but what about the rest of the book? Regarding the story, I touched on it some earlier in that the basic outline focuses on two main characters, youths Molly Templar and Oliver Brooks, both of whom are being hunted by deadly enemies for vastly different reasons. Eventually the whos & whys for their existence are revealed, ancient evils are resurrected, alliances formed and paths are set upon to oppose this threat. I know what you’re thinking, another quest story and truthfully, the quest does make up the heart of “The Court of the Air”. Thankfully, there’s a lot more to the tale, specifically a number of highly interesting subplots that deal with Commonshare uprisings, Parliamentary politics, steammen spirituality, the Court of the Air intrigue, Chimecan mythology and feybreed equality. It is also through these various subplots that we get to know some of the book’s more interesting personas. While Molly and Oliver may be the protagonists of “The Court of the Air”, honestly it’s hard to relate with either of them since they eventually become so powerful and inhuman, that you never worry about what’s going to happen to them. Side characters on the other hand, are a fascinating lot, blessed with distinctive personalities and their narratives are much more fun to follow – you’re never quite sure when they’ll switch sides, what secrets their past may hide, who they’ll become or even if they’ll survive. Of these, some of my favorites included the disreputable Harry Stave, Commodore Jared Black, King Steam, the Whisperer, Count Vauxtion, Captain Flare and many others who I wish had played a more prominent role in the book. As far as the writing, Stephen Hunt’s prose fits in nicely with the Victorian setting, and while it can get a tad preachy at times, I thought overall that Stephen handles himself very sufficiently with tight pacing, superb action sequences and confident control of the multiple characters & plotlines, neatly concluding the book in a way that it can be read as a standalone novel, while leaving enough threads open to easily return to the world.

As a whole, I would rate Stephen Hunt’sThe Court of the Air” as one of the more imaginative and enjoyable fantasy novels that I’ve read this year. Regarding the Philip Pullman comparisons, I think the books are vastly different as far as their worlds and styles, with their target audience and thoughtful complexity the only relevant similarities in my opinion. As to Susanna Clarke fans, while somewhat alike in style, “The Court of the Air” is much more fantastical and action-packed than the erudite “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell”, and admirers of the latter may not appreciate Stephen Hunt’s novel as much, though I for one enjoyed “The Court of the Air” a great deal more. However, like Susanna Clarke’s debut, I think opinions will greatly differ on “The Court of the Air” from those who absolutely love it, to readers who despise the book and people whose views don’t really fall either way. Personally, I can’t recommend it enough and hope that Stephen Hunt will return to this world soon, though I’ll definitely pick up anything else that the author publishes. For those who might be interested in “The Court of the Air”, the hardcover was published in April 2007 and is available in the UK, Canada, Japan & Australia with a paperback edition due out September 3, 2007.


Saul said...

Just wondered whether anyone else had found the feeling that they are reading something by China Meiville - I did when I read Court of the Air... brilliant as it is, there are alot of similarities to many of Mievilles Bas Lag books - especially Perdido Street Station and The Iron Council.


Anonymous said...

It reminded me very much of Meiville's novels, except it was probably less depressing than what I've seen from Meiville.

Maxwell Evans said...

The stylistic similarity to Meiville comes from the tendency of both authors to use terminology without explanation, counting on the reader to "catch on" with a hint or two.

The result is that the fourth wall never comes down. If the reader is reading a novel, it is anticipated that they occupy the world that lives within the book, and everything should therefore make sense.

Meiville is significantly more ambitious about this, however, and somewhat more unapologetic... to be honest, he laid it on so thick at the beginning of Iron Council that I almost gave up.

Caedo said...

Perdido Street Station seemed much darker and grittier to me than The Court of the Air. The same complexity of setting is there, but in The Court of the Air, that complexity seems a bit forced in places. I also think Hunt's characters are less engaging, but that's just me.

Joshua Murphy said...

I agree with your comment about the obvious satires between Hunt's countries and those of the real world, but between the obvious- England, Arabia, Aztec etc.- you mention Ireland. Out of interest; which of Jackal's neighboring nations did you think resembled Ireland?

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