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Book Review: The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt

* Genre: Steampunk, Fantasy
* ISBN: 0765320428
* ISBN-13: 9780765320421
* Format: Hardcover, 592pp
* Publisher: TOR
* Pub. Date: June 10, 2008

The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt is a steampunk tour de force. Endlessly inventive and as intricately plotted as George R. R. Martin�s A Song of Ice and Fire, The Court of the Air is a tale no reader should miss.

On the surface, this stand-alone tale is ostensibly about two orphans, Molly and Oliver. Gifted in different ways (one through science, the other through magic) these two are forced on the run. These two story arcs move separately from each other, only crossing paths indirectly for most of the novel, although they the do meet once, near the end of the story. They strange gifts of each must be called upon when they find they are the last, best hope for the salvation of mankind from the forces of evil.

Part Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, and Victorian era novel, The Court of the Air is both a challenging and entertaining read. The former is most evident early in the book. Hunt wastes no words in trying to explain the history of the setting, nor does he try to give reasons for the technology the reader will encounter. For the reader this may cause some difficulty, since the setting is wildly different from our own, and Hunt throws a lot of creative word usage at the reader right from the beginning. The latter is a result of Hunt�s action. It is almost non-stop, and as the byline on the front of the novel states, the tale truly is �a fantastical tale of high adventure, low life rouges, and orphans on the run.� The reader can�t help but be excited as Molly and Oliver move from scene to scene, finding dangers ever more harrowing. Their ultimate triumph comes all the more sweetly as a result.

Like most steampunk novels, the story is based on a Victorian technology, the era of steam and gas, when most machinery was mechanized and humanity yet lacked the silicon chip. Robots exist, but they are sentient and are known by the name �steammen� for the way they survive by eating coke and giving off steam from their boilers, much like a semi from its exhaust pipe. Other, stranger races exist in The Court of the Air but in this story, they are mostly background, with only a few characters from those races (graspers, craynarbians) rising to the level of actually being named. There is also magic, a sort of fairytale type that creates strange powers in humans who are affected by it, as in Oliver�s case.

Although the technology is Victorian, the politics are not. The majority of the story takes place in Jackals, described in the novel as a people having �the power to overrun the whole continent, but they would rather potter about their gardens cutting their hedges into fanciful shapes, slap each other with debating sticks, and stop every our to brew pot of caffeel.�. Sounds a lot like England, which is also the home of Hunt. Rather than take the Victorian period politics and reproduce them, Hunt has actually taken the politics of the time of the French Revolution, and readers will see an obvious corollary in the politics of the �communityists� and that of the revolutionaries of France, as well as those of the Russian Revolution. It is here that the comparisons to Fahrenheit 451 and Animal Farm come about.

Like all great English novels, The Court of the Air is partly a satire. Many of the great novels point out fallacies or inconsistencies in the lifestyle of the period. Dickens, Austen, Defoe, and Trollope all in their own way made evident the good and the bad of the time of England�s history in which they wrote. And The Court of the Air does much the same. Readers of English classics will notice many references to characters or events from those same novels. In fact, Molly�s story in some way echoes that of Moll Flanders a work by Daniel Defoe and Oliver�s has some similarities to Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Many of the names in the The Court of the Air will remind the reader of other novels.

In essence, there are two story arcs occurring in The Court of the Air. One is a political satire, pitting capitalism against Marxism. The second, and by far the one with the most page time, is the adventures of Molly and Oliver, as they race against time to save their world from a horrible death. And yet, though these two plots may be strange bedfellows, they are interwoven so cleverly, that they seem as one.

Hunt does have some difficulties in his writing. Readers will notice the use of a few deus ex machina. Oliver is saved by the appearance of a Loa, and while exciting, was an obvious way for Hunt to change the direction of the story. And his sudden change from confused boy to superhero is a bit abrupt, especially as its occurrence coincides with a gift he receives that seems to make him brave. Molly is once saved by a character who makes an appearance in the early pages of the book, and then disappears forever, and at the end of the novel I was left wondering where she went, especially as she was not the type to shrink from a fight (Hunt�s second book The Kingdom Beyond the Waves does revisit this character, but this is not made clear in this book). But although Hunt uses these salvations from above, they don�t detract from the story. Readers will also note that at the beginning of the tale, Hunt doesn�t seem to know what story he is trying to tell. Molly�s story especially wanders around until Hunt finally settles on her role in the adventure. But although the reader may feel that some of the scenes are unnecessary and wonder why Hunt included them, by the end of the tale it becomes a little clearer, and Hunt does manage to redeem what seems to be the plot meandering.

The Court of Air is a complex and convoluted novel. Hunt�s world building is exquisite, and I�ve never read another novel like it. It is exciting and fast paced, with myriad plot twists and turns, interesting characters, and fantasy world that manages to blend the modern and the fantastical all into one package. The best comparison to make is not to another novel, but rather to a video game. The Final Fantasy games (especially VII, X and X-2) kept coming to mind as I read Hunt�s novel. Like them, The Court of Air is always full of adventure, with a unique and detailed world. I highly recommend this book to all readers. It is already on my best of the year list. I think the only way to top it will be with the next book by Stephen Hunt, set in the same world and with some of the same characters, but still a stand alone novel, called The Kingdom Beyond the Waves.

Stephen Hunt is also the chief editor of SF Crowsnest, a monthly e-zine of news and articles in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre. Full disclosure � some of my articles have appeared at SF Crowsnest.

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