Monday, December 15, 2008

The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt

The Court of the Air is a novel by Stephen Hunt, combining elements of Victorian steampunk and fantasy. It was released in the United Kingdom in 2007, but didn’t reach the United States until this year. The follow up, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, is already out in the UK and will hopefully be reaching the US before too long.

Millennia ago, the world was in the throes of an ice age, and the people living on the surface were the slaves of the underground empire of the Chimeca and their monstrous gods. Eventually, the Chimeca were overthrown and the ice receded, allowing the nations of the surface to flourish again. Magic, steam power, and industrial technology exist side by side.

Above all other nations stands the Kingdom of Jackals, secure thanks to the Royal Navy and its flying aerostat warships. The Navy served the kingdom well in its recent war with the “Communityist” Commonshare of Quarter shift, a nation that has fallen under the rule of a brutal collectivist regime and seeks to spread its revolution by force. The Quartershiftians were forced back, and now the rulers of the Commonshare have sealed off the borders with a deadly magical “cursewall” to keep any invasion out- and to keep their own starving people in. Despite their military supremacy, the Jackelians are a mercantile people with no interest in conquest, preferring to attend to their own affairs.

The book tells the story of two teenage orphans from Jackals. Molly Templar is a resident of a grim orphanage in the capital of Jackals. The orphanage manager apprentices her out to a brothel, but her first customer turns out to be an assassin after her life. She flees back to the orphanage, only to discover that it has been attacked and all her friends slaughtered. Desperate, she flees into the underground warrens beneath the city, a legacy of the ancient Chimeca.

Oliver Brooks is a young man who lives with his uncle, a merchant, out in the country. As a child, Oliver suffered extended exposure to the fey mist, which can give people powerful supernatural gifts- or leave them violently insane or monstrously deformed. Oliver seems to have remained normal, but like everyone exposed to the fey mist he is considered a potential public menace, kept under government surveillance and forbidden by the state to travel far from home. His life is shattered when his uncle is murdered, and he himself is framed for the crime. He is rescued by a mysterious man named Harry Stave, an agent of the Court of the Air, the Kingdom’s enigmatic and ancient protectors. Oliver too must flee his home, and finds himself pulled into the deadly intrigues of Quartershift, Jackals, and the Court.

As the two young fugitives struggle to survive, they discover that they have key roles to play in a coming struggle involving agents of Quartershift, a revolutionary Communityist conspiracy against Jackals, traitors within the Kingdom, and the bloodthirsty worshipers of the ancient Chimecan gods, who seek to unleash something far worse than even the totalitarian horror of the Commonshare.

The setting is an interesting hybrid, magical but with the sort of grimy feeling you would expect from a story about orphans in the Industrial Revolution. The world of the story runs on a combination of magic and a sort of alternate physics. There is plenty of mundane technology that works on natural principles-firearms that propel bullets with exploding plant resin, skyscrapers held up by the pressure from pneumatic pumps, vast computer databases based on moving mechanical parts instead of electronics- but not natural principles as we know them.

The historical parallels are obvious, e.g. Jackals is an industrializing commercial nation with the world’s mightiest navy, and its enemy Quartershift is a former monarchy now ruled by brutal, oppressive revolutionaries, but this serves as a sort of initial framework and springboard rather than a straitjacket. There’s a lot of little nods to real history in the setting- the Oliver Cromwell-like historical figure who broke the absolute power of the ancient Jackalian kings, the practice of orphanages renting out their charges as a cheap disposable workforce, the “sun god” of pre-Revolutionary Quartershift, and so on-but nothing like a one-to-one correspondence. There are some strong hints that the story is actually set on a future Earth after some world-reshaping cataclysm, but it’s not made explicit.

I loved this book. It does a wonderful job of combining an exciting story and a great and imaginative setting. Hunt manages to make things detailed and evocative while simultaneously keeping the plot extremely fast-paced. The story and setting continuously build at breakneck speed, with events progressing and escalating while the setting offers new ideas at a relentless pace; the book sometimes seems on the brink of careening out of control, but it never does. You’d expect a book to seem either rushed, disjointed, or overstuffed when it simultaneously incorporates steampunk-style technology, a fantasy analog of 19th-century Europe, bloodthirsty cultists, sorcerers, assorted political intrigue, communist revolutionaries, ancient civilizations, a race of sapient steam-powered robots, and malevolent Lovecraftian deities, but Hunt does a great job of making everything work together. This kind of frantic pace and sheer density won’t appeal to everyone, but I thought it worked beautifully.

I really can’t recommend The Court of the Air enough. It’s one of the most exciting and inventive fantasy books I’ve read in some time, and one of my favorite books of 2008. I can’t wait to see what Hunt does next with the series.

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Ben said...

Nice Review! I didn't much care for this book but your review is great nonetheless.

Peter said...

I agree with your review - this is one of the best books of the year and possibly the best thriller of any genre, ever. Why it hasn't attracted more reviewer and magazine attention beats me. My prediction? Stephen Hunt and his fantasy novels are going to be Robert Jordan-huge one day.

Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic » Blog Archive » Review of Kingdom Beyond the Waves by Stephen Hunt said...

[...] steampunk/fantasy novel The Court of the Air was one of the best books I read last year (see my review), so I was quite excited when the follow-up The Kingdom Beyond the Waves made its recent arrival in [...]