The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt

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The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt

Category: Fantasy
Rating: 2/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: The Dickensian world in which two orphans and their robot companions must struggle through adversity to combine their talents in saving the world is brilliantly realised. However the depth of detail just hides a weak, unbalanced plot, and the author's inventiveness ends up being completely wasted, in this struggle of a fantasy debut.
Buy? No Borrow? No
Pages: 592 Date: April 2007
Publisher: Voyager
ISBN: 978-0007232178

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So, where are we at the start of this huge volume? We're in a world that seems a lot like our recent past - people bear Dickensian names, and do Dickensian things. Molly, our orphan heroine, gets sent back to the poorhouse for the umpteenth time for getting herself the sack.

There is progress happening in the wider world - we meet our hero Oliver on an errand to fetch a visitor to his uncle's, where this other orphan must live, from the airship landing site. Firearms are common, and skyscrapers are beginning to be built, albeit out of rubber.

We are in the city of Middlesteel, which bears resemblance to a large city somewhere near Middlesex, but we are in the Kingdom of Jackals (named for the ruling house, it seems), in the year 1575, in a sort of post-civil war land (the parliamentarians make sure the king never raises arms against anyone again by chopping them off at the shoulder before each coronation).

People drink "jinn" by the gallon, and "uplander" warriors play pipes that sound like "cats being strangled". But there are also kingdoms of steam-powered robots, orreries have twenty planets on, and bits of our world become detached in floatquakes, and sail skywards. So, despite all the details that hint at Victorian England, there are enough clues to put us off thinking this.

And where are we a hundred pages in to this story? Well, Molly has been sent to a house of ill-repute, rather than another tannery or job up the chimneys. She's just about to get her first client, when he turns out to be an assassin, and she is forced to flee through the slums. At the same time, Oliver is finding his strange visitor has brought death to his uncle's house. Both children must escape the killing, and fulfil their untold destiny, as neither child is what they seem...

So where are we going? Unfortunately, nowhere fast. There has been so much inventiveness put into this novel, it's just such a shame there is no compelling reason to explore it. There is a god versus political split people are divided by, and a whole revolution brewing, but... There is eventually (220 pages in) an action scene, where zombie robots defend our hero and his companions from some hell-hound type creatures, but it's not enough.

In fact, some of the small details made me wonder if this is a parody. Why does the cheese come from Fromerset? Why is a seat of government and information called Greenhall? Why is Dickens practically quoted, as well as his names (Jarndyce, Nickleby) used?

Is this book going to be huge? Huh, it's already big - a walloping 580 pages. It's clearly dressed up as one of those accessible fantasies that anyone can read - there's no fantasy maps provided, and the sleeve is non-genre fiction - but I can't see this being anywhere near as popular as Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

And there's no disguising the fact that this is a genre work. Stephen Hunt has gone into so much detail, it seems, for a reason, as this is a quest novel thickly disguised as something else. And it takes an age for the very slim quests to become clear. You're well over a third of the way in before any link in the two orphans' narratives is mentioned.

It's not just the dense writing style used - I could list aspects of the inventive world that are featured even for just one mention that I can admire until the cows come home - but the plot is unbalanced. When the orphans meet (come on, you know they had to) it is very clumsily done. The revolution that surrounds the last third is also just jerked into view, with very little preamble.

Also, there is a very slap-dash approach to time passing, where we are suddenly told the narrative has flashed forward a couple of days. Oh, and a character at the end seems to look back to the 1580s... perhaps we aren't in 1575 after all.

The only notable feature of the book is how all the world is brought to life with no exposition at all - which also makes for difficulties at times, as we struggle to work out the politics of neighbouring countries, and the magical aspects to their wars. But that is the only notable feature. While the characters (human, robot, unearthly) are neither better nor worse than other genre examples, the plot is disappointing, and the whole flatters to impress.

There was clearly a lot of hard work to create the book. There was also a lot of hard work to wade through it and create this review.

I cannot recommend this book to anyone, as a result. Sorry!

If you're interested there's a nice little animation about the book here.

Buy The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt at Amazon.com.


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Magda said:

If not a parody, then a pastiche, perhaps? Or being very, er, post-modern?

I think I would have probably liked it better (I read fantasy and s-f mainly for the multitude of world visions) but I also think that what seems to be a requirement to make all fantasy books now 500+ pages (and a minimum of a trilogy) is a very double-edged thing.

John said:

One saving grace of this book is that it really does seem to be self-contained, and not part of a strict trilogy. But there is scope for more fiction set in the same world.


David Bolt said:

It seems to me that Stephen Hunt couldn't decide if he wanted to write a political satire, a lovecraftian horror, a steampunk romp, a superhero novel, a dickensian intrigue, or a Pullman-esque fantasy.

So he decided to do all of them, all at once.

The Court of the Air is a Friday night curry ruined by too many different spices. Had Mr Hunt restricted himself to a mere two or three genres, then I think the result would have been far more enjoyable. Certainly he has some wonderful ideas, and his writing is better than many authors I have read, but in this case the whole is less than the sum of its parts.