Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Review: The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt


What happens when you mix Victorian England, sentient robot ‘life’, Aztec sacrificial rituals, and a shadow organization in the sky in a pot full of (for lack of a better word) magic? In the case of Stephen Hunt’s The Court of the Air, the result is an eclectic mix that fails more often than it succeeds.

The plot follows the separate journeys of two adolescent orphans. Oliver is a boy tainted by the mysterious fey mists that infect and change humans in magical and horrendous ways, though his ‘gifts’ have not (yet) manifested themselves. Ostracized by society, he lives with a reclusive uncle. His life is turned upside down when a group of assassins murder his uncle and Oliver finds himself confused and on the run with the disreputable Harry Stave, who knows much more than he lets on.

Molly Templar lives in a poorhouse of a great city reminiscent of Dickens’ London. Not content with her place in life, Molly finds herself in a job that just may hold a future in spite of the wares she is actually selling – things change forever when an assassin shows up and she finds herself on the run through the city’s underbelly.

Both plots follow a rather standard orphaned adolescent quest with a few interesting twists and turns through Hunt’s imaginative world. It seems the world building is where Hunt chose to concentrate – and he throws everything he has into it, for better and worse. The over-bombardment of clever ideas ultimately causes confusion, watering down a world of potential and needlessly increasing the page count. The steampunk setting takes obvious and intentional inspiration from the Victorian British Empire and its surrounding world, while throwing more varied influences from ideas of faerie and Aztec sacrificial rituals. Humans aren’t the only sentient beings, with the most interesting others being the steammen – essentially sentient robots who have gained the equivalent of life. Hunt struggles as he resists explaining his world, instead attempting to show it, while still falling into clumsily integrated information dumps. When mixed with his efforts of characterization, the resulting inconsistent voice annoys as much as it confuses.

Both Oliver and Molly start as interesting characters with potential – though I always found Molly the more interesting of the two. As the book proceeds, the characterization fails to grow with the scope of events around them, resulting in my not caring a whit about them. Hunt attempts to remedy this with both Oliver and Molly unrealistically growing in power, maturity and knowledge while in the end, they both earn the Mary Sue stigma, with Oliver the more egregious of the two. In something of a surprise, the supporting characters are generally presented quite well, and become infinitively more interesting than our two orphans.

Another disappointment is the Court of the Air itself, a seemingly all-powerful, shadow organization pulling the puppet strings from far above that lends its name to the novel itself. Its role is both central to everything and fringe enough that I can’t place it in the end. This bit of ambiguity distracts from the punch that things could have had.

Hunt manages to salvage things a bit by telling what becomes an engaging story that stands well on its own with an ending that satisfies. For all the flaws I mention above, The Court of the Air contains flashes of brilliant writing and by the end of the story I found myself eagerly flipping the pages. It’s this final bit that will encourage me to give Hunt another try in the future – perhaps the sequel, The Kingdom of the Waves. 6/10

7 comments:

Chris, The Book Swede said...

Interesting review :) I've got Hunt's second novel, which I've had on my shelf for too long! I need to get to that soon. It will be my first read of his work, so it'll be interesting to see whether he's worked on those flaws you spotted in this book.

~Chris
The Book Swede

Neth said...

it's interesting - I saw that Strange Horizons panned it even worse than I did and then Robert (FBC) rather enjoyed it, though he had a few issues.

I'm sure I'll read the second one, but I haven't seen any info on an US release yet.

gav (nextread) said...

After reading this - it's moved back down to the be read shelf - actually it's off it. Maybe this will change after seeing reviews for The Kingdom of the Waves?

The power of reviews...

Neth said...

Well, Robert (Fantasy Book Critic) felt differently about The Court of the Air and unsurprisingly, he liked The Kingdom of the Waves quiet a bit.

ThRiNiDiR said...

This book got its share of mixed reviews; I always appreciate candid negative review (such as in your case). enjoyed it quite a bit too :)

Robert said...

Personally, this series is shaping up to be one of my favorites :) For me, the books remind me of those classic pulp fiction adventures crossed with contemporary videogames and anime.

I think if you're a big fan of videogames/anime, you might appreciate the novels more, because they kind of suffer from the same problems (info-dumps, weak characterization, deus ex machinas), so if you can overlook such issues when playing a videogame or watching an anime, you can do so with the books. At least that was the case for me...

Neth said...

-Robert

hmm...well, I'm not much of a gamer and I don't really read anime or comics, so I can't really make the comparison. To me it just seemed to be a rather flawed book that somewhat saved itself with a compelling story.

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