Thursday, April 12, 2012
The Court of the Air
Author: Stephen Hunt
Genre: Science Fiction/Thriller
Let's face it: imaginary worlds are the best if they're, well, outlandish. There's a reason that Middle Earth is so much better loved than any of Isaac Asimov's worlds, and that Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy boasts millions of fans while other alien books fall flat. In the world of science fiction, anything goes, and the crazier the better. The true magic of fiction is that anything unbelievable can indeed be believed.
Stephen Hunt has created a spectacular, detailed steampunk-style world in The Court of the Air, complete with unique races (I've never heard of crustacean people before) and a full, tragic history just as imaginative and convoluted as any in the real world. Jackals, Quatershift, and the Steammen Free State are gritty and vital enough to just be beyond the fingertips. Regrettably (bitterly so) this book is clumsy in every sense of the word.
The novel follows two orphans, the street-smart Molly Templar and reclusive Oliver Brooks, who are both special outcasts in the world. Oliver was abandoned to a dangerous substance called the feymist from the ages of one to five, and as a result is a registered feybreed, targeted by the government to be dragged into service. Molly, on the other hand, has no idea why she is special, and when all of her friends are mysteriously murdered or kidnapped, she runs for her life.
The book is fast-paced, with little time taken aside for thoughts and recollections, which is almost nice for a change. We meet a colorful host of characters-- Harry Stave, the rogue wolftaker (an agent of the Court of the Air); Silas Nickleby, a war criminal who is investigating a series of brutal murders for a newspaper; Commodore Black, who doesn't explain much of his history but is irrepressibly cheerful; Aliquot Coppertracks, a steamman (a sort of living machine) with an incredibly powerful mind; and the Whisperer, a dark presence with incredible power imprisoned in dreams. There are dozens of characters, each with interesting, individual features, and 582 pages don't feel like enough to get to know them very well.
I can't explain how unbelievably creative the world of Jackals is. Imagine crossing the raw creativity of Lewis Carroll with the grit and ingenuity of Philip Pullman, and then shading in more and more details until you have a maddeningly fascinating reality. The history of Jackals is filled with words lifted straight out of Aztec history (Duitzilopochtli Deeps, Chimeca, etc.) and the idea of severing the monarchs' arms to prove their lack of power to Parliament is gory and riveting. I've seen a lot of inventive government systems in fantasy, but never one with the complexity of The Court of the Air.
I might have claimed this book as one of my favorites if it hadn't been so poorly executed.
From the first page, we are absolutely bombarded with terms, jargon, slang, places, names, whatchamacallits, and anything you can imagine. Hunt may have been trying to immerse the readers in his world, but he successfully drowned us with far too many unexplained details. For instance, the very titular Court is never fully explained. Chapter after chapter goes by with allusions to it, and the only details that come out are more complexities. It's absolutely maddening.
Hunt also made a habit throughout the book of latching onto phrases and reusing them again and again. At one point, he refers to Harry as "the disreputable Stave" three or four times on a single page. By that time, we've gotten the message-- Harry is bad news. Hunt may have been trying to be humorous and give him a nickname in Oliver's mind, but there are certainly better ways to do it than that. The intriguing Whisperer is also left annoyingly vague, as are all the characters. According to Stephen Hunt's website, The Court of the Air is only the first in a series of books based in Jackals, so maybe he brings more light on the subjects in the future.
But even if he does, he needs to rectify his organizational skills first. The chapters are really poorly sorted out, mashing together the viewpoints of multiple characters with no markers for place and time at all. We jump from Molly to Oliver to Commodore Black to a random citizen to King Steam to Molly to whatever just make it stop. Some authors can do this gracefully (i.e. Ken Follett), but it's irritating and confusing in this book. Having seventy chapters is not a bad thing-- if it really bothers you, split the book into acts or sections.
To top it all off, the book ends in a fashion similar to dropping an anvil on a bird in flight. The plot has just begun to settle in and all fit together in a big map, and thwack! the end comes and makes no sense. We're given no hint as to what has happened to the rest of the characters, and there's not even a cliffhanger to imply that there will be another book. An extremely minor character who appears maybe two or three times in the entire course of the novel has the last line, and not even in a meaningful way.
The Court of the Air had so much potential. It's the most imaginative book to come into the science fiction/fantasy genre in absolute ages, but because it's so poorly written, the idea is shot down before it has a chance to really prove itself. It's a shame, because the steampunk world needs a real example of quality to set itself a standard.
Five years later, the book is available in libraries (on a side note, I picked it up purely for the cover-- the art is great). You can't buy it from the Kindle store, but you can get it at Barnes and Noble in paperback for $8.99. Amazon has several listings for cheap, but don't buy it if you can just rent it. One read is good enough for this novel.