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Monday, May 12, 2008

"The Kingdom Beyond the Waves" by Stephen Hunt w/Bonus Q&A

Official Stephen Hunt Website
Order “The Kingdom Beyond the WavesHERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s REVIEW of “The Court of the Air
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s INTERVIEW with Stephen Hunt

AUTHOR INFORMATION: After attaining a BA in Marketing, Stephen Hunt pursued a career in publishing, which included employment by various newspapers and magazines. Stephen now writes part-time while working for an investment banking house. His bibliography includes several short stories, the out-of-print novel “For the Crown and the Dragon”—winner of the WH Smith New Talent Award—and “The Court of the Air”, which shares the same setting as the author’s new book “The Kingdom Beyond the Waves”. Stephen is also the founder of the fan-run science fiction & fantasy website SF Crowsnest.

PLOT SUMMARY: Professor Amelia Harsh is obsessed with finding the lost civilization of Camlantis, a legendary city from pre-history that is said to have conquered hunger, war and disease with the creation of a perfect pacifist society. But when she returns home to Jackals from her latest archaeological misadventure she finds that the university council has stripped her of her position in retaliation for her heretical research.

Without official funding, Amelia has no choice but to accept the offer of patronage from the man she blames for her father's bankruptcy and suicide: Abraham Quest, said to be the cleverest and richest person in all of Middlesteel. Quest has found evidence that suggests the Camlantean ruins are buried under one of the sea-like lakes that dot the murderous jungles of Liongeli. So with the help of her old friend Commodore Black, an untrustworthy crew of freed convicts, Quest's force of fiercesome female mercenaries, and a lunatic steamman safari hunter acting as their guide, Amelia undertakes an expedition deep into the dark heart of the jungle.

Meanwhile, Furnace-breath Nick—the scourge of Quatérshift—and his manservant, the exiled lashlite Septimoth, are diverted from their mission of revenge against the Commonshare by an intriguing mystery involving the world’s greatest mechomancer Jules Robur, steammen grave-robbing, the Court of the Air, Abraham Quest, and lashlite prophecy. But what they discover is more horrific than anyone could imagine, for Amelia’s quest for utopia will mean the destruction of the world…

CLASSIFICATION:The Kingdom Beyond the Waves” is set in the same Victorian-influenced world as its predecessor, but where “The Court of the Air” strongly evoked Charles Dickens, the new novel seems inspired more by Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs and such contemporary heroes as Indiana Jones and Lara Croft of Tomb Raider fame. In addition, steampunk remains a prominent element of the book as well as blending together magic, technology and pulp-like adventure, and is recommended for fans of science fiction/fantasy amalgamations, pulp magazines, and Final Fantasy

FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 560 pages, divided over 24 chapters. Narration is in the third-person and alternates via a large cast of characters including the two protagonists Amelia Harsh and Furnace-breath Nick as well as various supporting players: Abraham Quest, Jared Black, Septimoth, Damson Beeton, etc. Plot is self-contained like “The Court of the Air”, but chronologically takes place a few years later and is riddled with references to the first book. Namely Molly Templar, Coppertracks, Benjamin Carl, Harry Stave, a Hexmachina, the Commonshare uprising, and Jared Black who plays a much bigger role in “The Kingdom Beyond the Waves”. And let’s not forget that Amelia was briefly mentioned in “The Court of the Air” :)

May 6, 2008 marks the UK-only (
HarperVoyager) hardcover publication for “The Kingdom Beyond the Waves”, followed by the paperback release October 2008. As of now, US publication is TBD, but with “The Court of the Air” scheduled for US release June 10, 2008 thanks to Tor, I expect “The Kingdom Beyond the Waves” to hit stateside stores sometime in 2009.

ANALYSIS: One of the main reasons why I loved “The Court of the Air” so much was the setting, which reimagines the classic Victorian/steampunk milieu—and various science fiction/fantasy tropes—into a world that is at once familiar, yet astonishingly original. Like for instance Steammen, a race of robots that are not only sentient, but possess their own feelings, souls, and gods that they worship. In “The Kingdom Beyond the Waves”, that wild imagination is alive and kicking, as Stephen takes readers far beyond the Kingdom of Jackals into unexplored lands and inhabitants. Of particular interest is Camlantis—an obvious nod to Atlantis—a perfect society of pacifism and super-science that was lost to history so long ago that its ruins, a floating city in the sky, is considered nothing more but myth. Liongeli meanwhile, a cross between the Lost World and the Congo, is not only home to such prehistoric terrors as tauntoraptors and the mighty kilasaurus max, but also the Daggish—an ancient hive mind that assimilates all animals and vegetation within its reach into a single symbiosis known as the greenmesh—and the siltempters, corrupted steammen. Additionally, readers will also learn about Catosians, free company fighters who revere the drug shine that stimulates muscle-growth; lashlites—flying reptilian creatures that consume their dead and possess a third eye that helps them see the future—and many other strange & wonderful concepts. A warning though. While much of the world is a reimagining of recognizable tropes and ideas, there is so much information to process, that at times it can be a little overwhelming.

Characterization in “The Kingdom Beyond the Waves” is about the same as it was in “The Court of the Air”, meaning the characters aren’t blessed with great depth: Amelia’s passion for discovering Camlantis stems from her father; Furnace-breath Nick’s need for vengeance is because of the loss of his family; the same with Septimoth; and Abraham Quest’s desire for a utopian society dates back to his wretched childhood. In other words, there’s not much more to the characters that what readers are given initially, but it’s not like Amelia and company are one-dimensional stick-figures. They possess personalities and motives, sometimes conflicting; are likeable—enough so that you care when someone is killed, which happens quite often; and do a capable job of driving the story. Plus, the secondary players are once again fascinating including Ironflanks, Billy Snow, Damson Beeton, and my personal favorite, Commodore Black :)

Story-wise, “The Kingdom Beyond the Waves” is even more exciting and entertaining than its predecessor. Part of it is the plot itself which is more ambitious weaving together an archeological quest with royalist / parliamentary / Commonshare politics, intrigue, philosophy, and a doomsday subplot, but much of the improvement has to be attributed to the author. Basically, Stephen has just written a better book, including dynamic pacing and firm plotting to go with an already excellent imagination and a deft ability for composing heart-pounding action. I will say though that the story suffers a bit when the different plotlines converge into one and the novel heads into the home stretch, not unlike “The Court of the Air”, but otherwise, “The Kingdom Beyond the Waves” is just immense fun.

CONCLUSION: In my mind, “The Court of the Air” was one of the best speculative fiction novels released in 2007, and even though my expectations were exceedingly high, “The Kingdom Beyond the Waves” exceeded them. The writing was stronger, the story delivered even greater thrills and adventure, and the characters—while lacking in certain areas—were still more compelling than the protagonists from “The Court of the Air”, all this while retaining the magic, creativity and novelty of the first book…

BONUS FEATURE — Stephen Hunt Author Q&A:

Q: Personally, I thought “The Kingdom Beyond the Waves” was better written, more exciting, and just more fun to read than its predecessor “The Court of the Air”. Was writing the new book easier or harder than the first Jackelian novel, and how do you think “The Kingdom Beyond the Waves” compares to “The Court of the Air”?

Stephen: Well, "The Court of the Air" is a more epic, sweeping work, whereas "The Kingdom Beyond the Waves" is a more self-contained book, and probably all the tighter for it. I didn't notice much difference between either book in terms of author experience, however. They both flowed well and were a joy to write. I've never really subscribed to the writing as painful art theory, though. I tend to try to write what I prefer to read - cracking good page-turners.

Q: One of the major themes in “The Kingdom Beyond the Waves” is the quest for a perfect society. In your opinion, why is this such a popular concept in fiction, and will our world ever be ready for a utopia?

Stephen: Would that it were just fiction. One of the problems with the world is that rulers keep on trying to impose their one-size-fits-all, year-zero crackpot models on society - whether it be communism, fascism, some fanatical religious movement or a survivalist retreat. Utopias are a popular concept in literature because the writer can impose their perfect little order on their created world, without any of the myriad difficulties of doing it in real life - like difficult people and their many differences. Readers like them because we love the fiction that such a thing might be possible.

But caveat emptor, dear reader. Whenever true believers are coming at you with an 'ism' they're taking far too seriously, you know the slaughter of heretics is following close in their shadow.

Q: Like “The Court of the Air”, many of the characters, places and ideas in “The Kingdom Beyond the Waves” are derived from the Victorian/steampunk era or other recognizable science fiction/fantasy tropes. What kind of research did you put into the novel, and how much of it is imagination?

Stephen: I would say 60% imagination, 40% research. I've blended Georgian and Victorian society for the Kingdom of Jackals. A lot of the slang used in both books is genuine period. Assassins really were called 'toppers', policemen really were called 'crushers'.

My Jackelian capital's underground transport system using vacuum tunnels - 'the Middlesteel atmospheric' - was based on a prototype that was being tested in the 1840s, but never actually made it into full production. There was also a real patent for rubber pneumatic high-rise towers with a water-based skeleton. There's a lot of fantasy in history, just begging to be mined, and I've got my trusty pickaxe handy.

Q: Interesting. As far as the characters, “The Kingdom Beyond the Waves” features a healthy mix of new and returning faces. Of the new characters, who were your favorites?

Stephen: I think that would have to be Cornelius and Septimoth. After all, a clockwork cyborg vigilante and his half-lizard man sidekick, escaped from a foreign concentration camp and both functioning only for revenge. What's not to like?

Q: Recently you signed a second Three-Book deal with
HarperCollins Voyager for more novels set in the Jackelian milieu. Obviously the publisher must have a lot of confidence in you and this world that you’ve created, but what do you find appealing about the Kingdom of the Jackals? Also, could you give us an update on the next Jackelian adventures?

Stephen: For me, the Jackelian world is my 'Trigan Empire' - Don Lawrence's classic science fiction/fantasy adventures that appeared in the mid-1960s in comic-book form in the UK. An infinitely expandable world where you paint great multi-coloured panoramas of adventure and squeeze just about any story, people or narrative into a coherent nearly-believable whole. It's one of the reasons why I've avoided that old fantasy trope, 'the map', at the start of the book. As soon as you fix your world in size, you diminish it.

I've handed in my third Jackelian world book and just received it back with minor edits from HarperCollins for me to clean up. There's no title agreed yet, but it features the invasion of the Kingdom of Jackals from the north by a mysterious enemy called the Army of Shadows, who everyone mistakes at first for a very successful bunch of polar barbarians. If there's a deeper message than just a stonking good adventure story to the book, it's asking the question, how much can we consume before we harm our world and ourselves? That bloke what tried to become US President last time around did some slides on it, or something. Molly and Oliver are back in this novel, along with most of the original crew that survived the first book!

I'm currently working on book four, too, about a fifth of the book in. It's a murder mystery set on the volcanic island of Jago, slap-bang in the middle of the Fire Sea. Jago is an underground civilization that used flash steam-powered systems to survive the ice age, having been colonised by Jackelian refugees from the continent about a thousand years prior. They still have a form of electricity working, and their transaction engine rooms (computers) are valve-based, so are orders of power above the steam-powered ones back in the kingdom. They're a dying society, though...as Jago is really only the kind of place you'd want to live if you *had* to hole up to survive an ice age. Now the rest of the world has returned back to springtime, they've been suffering population fall from emigration for centuries. Once Jago was the last shining light of civilization, now they're a faded, sad nation, running to ruin.

Book five is a war story between the Kingdom of Jackals and their neighbours to the south, Cassarabia. It's been brewing over the last few books and it's time to sort out who's top dog. There should be some good airship-on-airship action in this one, let me tell you! Fans of Hornblower and the like should be very pleased.

Book six is a tale of intrigue which will feature the native Jackelian secret service, a rather dowdy, cheap, dirty-fighting organisation which has long laboured in the shadows of the far more glamorous Court of the Air. Unfortunately, they find themselves having to save Jackals with only their wits and a very poorly funded pension scheme backing their efforts.

All six novels are self-contained, and the one common character who will appear in all of them is Commodore Black.

Q: On June 10, 2008, “The Court of the Air” will finally hit US shelves. Are you excited/anxious about this release and how it will do in the United States, and what do you think about Tor publishing your novel?

Stephen: I'm very happy to be hitting the USA, and even happier to be in the hands of Tor. They really understand the SFF market and - in the argot of the US military - Tor seems to have established full-spectrum dominance over the theatre of operations out there in the home market for my chosen genre.

As to how I feel, kind of like the Beatles before arriving in JFK. I've had nothing but badgering for the last twelve months from US readers unhappy they haven't been able to buy the book locally. Now's their chance!

Q: Back in February, “The Court of the Air” was one of only ten novels—and the only one of speculative fiction—to be presented at the
Berlin International Film Festival. What kind of experience was that and did anything come out of it?

Stephen: I'm sworn to secrecy on this one. Suffice it to say that Hollywood moves at its own pace and on its own terms, and there's many a slip twix a cup and a lip on the journey. Even being optioned by a Spielberg, Lucas or a Jackson doesn't mean a whole lot until the popcorn is actually being served and the unfeasibly tall bloke annoyingly plonks himself down in front of your seat.

It was very flattering to be the only fantasy novel pitched to the great and the good at the world's largest film festival, though. Sean Connery would make a very good king of Jackals. Sean, you listening? Come to think of it, how about Harrison Ford as Harry Stave?

Q: Lastly, Richard Morgan’s article
HERE about science fiction/fantasy readership/criticisms created quite a furor. What are your thoughts on the subject?

Stephen: Ah, Richard, Richard, we feel your pain. It's an interesting, intelligent piece and Richard makes some valid points, plus I think many a professional SFF author will privately wince and, in our dark times, understand exactly how he feels. I suspect part of his muscularity of feeling comes from arriving late to the fan with a capital 'F' party, though. The fandom he describes and is reacting against has been acting pretty much exactly as described since the 1930s. Fans come up and agree with you by disagreeing with you, it's like shaking hands and slapping backs.

They're a very vocal minority, but they shouldn't be confused with your real readership - an author's sales numbers come from fans with a small 'f'. People who kind of dig SFF novels and movies, who play Halo on their Xbox, but will never go to a Con, and probably think Filk is a really bad bovine illness.

A Hugo can be swung by an actively voting population of less people than can squeeze into my local McDonalds, and the people who really vote for my work do so with little slips of paper bearing Her Majesty's head on them (shortly, said ballot to be widened to include illustrations of US Presidents).

I have to say, though, I do possess very catholic reading tastes - and I have never understood the mentality of fans who say they'll only ever read SF but never fantasy, or vice versa. Dude, it's the same beast. Science fiction is a root sub-genre of fantasy, after all. After the Emperor's clothes have been ripped off, science fiction is usually just fantasy with some cribbed notes from Nature magazine and Scientific American on quantum tunnelling and genetic engineering thrown into the mix. I used to work for Nature magazine - having set up Nature.com for them - I know these things, trust me.

There. All genre arguments settled!

The King of the Jackelians has spoken.

12 comments:

Robert said...

NOTE: As you can see, I've changed up the format for my book reviews a little bit. The goal is to present a book review that is more organized and informational, while catering to a wider audience. Of course, this is only a trial run, so please feel free to leave any comments, including yays, nays, advice and whatnot. Thanks for your time and much love & respect :D

Robert -- Fantasy Book Critic

Liviu said...

I posted my thoughts on sff world on this one and I have to say that it is an excellent book and it will be in my top five for this year despite stiff competition. Right now is number 1, with House of Suns number 2, Line War 3, LAOK 4 and Matter 5, but there are several blockbuster books for me to come so things can change. This year I will be hard pressed to make a top 5 or even top 15 book list since there are already so many excellent books that came out.

TKBtW is much closer to pure-adventure sf than the first one and tighter. It's a non-stop ride and the last 60 pages before the epilogue are just unbelievable action.

Regarding the review here - I love the new format since it's very informative and it would make me much more to pick a book. I still shudder to think of the work you put in to write this much about a book, but I appreciate it a lot all the same.

The q&a and especially the hints about the future books are excellent too - any new Jackelian book is a buy/read on publication for me.

reanimated said...

I dig the new format also.

best : )

Robert said...

Liviu, I haven't been by SFFWorld for a while now, so I'll need to make a pit stop later today :)

"The Kingdom Beyond the Waves" will definitely be one of my favorite books of the year, but it's going to be hard to rate with so many great books out there and so many more yet to come...

Yeah, I thought the interview was great and really appreciated that Stephen was so forthcoming about his future Jackelian books, which sound like must-reading :D

Also, I'm glad that you and Reanimanted like the new format :)

Chris, The Book Swede said...

Excellent interview and review! :) I have this on my shelf, and I'll probably start it tonight properly.

"[T]he people who really vote for my work do so with little slips of paper bearing Her Majesty's head on them..." I really like that; I'll have to remember it ;)

~Chris

Dark Wolf said...

Very interesting change, Robert, it is a nice idea, I like it. Where do you get so much resources to do all this things :)?

Robert said...

Chris, thanks! I hope you enjoy "The Kingdom Beyond the Waves" more than you did "The Host" :D

Mihai, the idea just came to me suddenly. I felt my reviews were getting stale so I wanted to change things up and this format was the first thing that popped into my head. So we'll see how it goes...

Chris, The Book Swede said...

It's not that I'm not enjoying it, generally, it's just that I'm having difficulty with the meandery middle passage, and I'm having a bit of problem with actual time to devote to getting past that section! ;)

I know one of my guest reviewers is a huge fan of the author, and considering my time problems, I may forward it onto them :)

I like the new format! Very good. There are a few small changes I'll be making to things, too. I've gone back to including the page count and the release date as I used to; I may reintroduce the rating system, not too sure.

My problem is that I don't keep it consistent. There are certain things I do most of the time, but forget on some reviews. I may do a huge trawl, adding things like that to my old reviews.

Chris

Robert said...

Honestly, I really didn't notice any slowdowns. For me at least, the book went by really quickly...

I'm glad you like the new format. I'll probably be tweaking things for a bit. Like just recently, I realized I should be adding the cover art information as well :)

I doubt I'll ever go back and reformat my old reviews. Not enough time and I'm too lazy ;) I've been thinking about a rating system, but what I have in mind is pretty complicated and would take up a lot of time & effort, so I'm holding off for now...

I like the changes you bring to your blog. Keeps things fresh :)

Jasper Brownrigg said...

I have only just come across this blog when looking for info on the "sequel" to 'The Court of the Air', but I found it to be very indepth and useful read. Probably the most comprehensive review I've ever come across of a book (maybe shows how frequently I read book reviews, i.e. not at all).

It is nicely laid out with well defined headings so you can just skip the information you do not want and the Q&A always adds an unbeatable personal touch. I suspect that I will end up bookmarking this and coming back to look at what you have to say on other books.

jasper -- random SF reader :P

Caius Caligula said...

I agree with you on Commodore Black. He's awesome, though more so if you read Court of the Air, and more so in Court of the Air I found a little more depth to the characters than you did, but that might just be me and my own lack of taste. :D

All in all, liked the review, and I like the book even more. It's part of what I call my "private collection"-- the books I won't give away or sell at all.

mar said...

I won these books over two years ago and they were never received even though I followed through with an email.

Not very happy with the outcome

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