The Court of the Air
by Stephen Hunt
Review by John Berlyne
Voyager Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780007232178
Date: 02 April 2007 List Price £12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Author's Website /
A lead title in the HarperCollins Voyager schedule and marketed towards fans of the His Dark Materials trilogy.
Stephen Hunt's Dickensian fantasy is published in hard cover with a heft publicity drive behind it. Find out what I thought of it elsewhere in this issue.
A pre-publication fanfare surrounded The Court of the Air, Stephen Hunt's new novel which Voyager is publishing this month. Proof copies were circulated early and the online marketing presence has been strong. This has been helped by Hunt's own profile, for he is the founder of www.sfcrowsnest.com, long established as a major genre presence based in the UK and this site has not been shy about plugging the boss's book. Hunt also has some previous as an author, and though his only previous novel (For The Crown and the Dragon) won the prestigious W.H.Smith New Talent award back in 1994, he's not been visibly active on the scene since that time.
Having for whatever reason, faded from the consciousness of the readership, The Court of the Air could almost be considered a debut for Hunt. It is set in an inventively rendered Dickensian steampunk world, against a backdrop of recognisable British influence and follows the adventures of two young protagonists. The first is Molly Templar, an orphan girl raised in the local workhouse. She is, at the start of proceedings, being farmed out to various establishments in the hope that she will be taken off the hands of the State, but she's not having much success. She returns from one failed placement, only to be sent to another – and in latest of which, showing that the State has little moral conscience - she is apprenticed to brothel. Molly has been there only the shortest time when she witnesses a terrible murder and naturally gets the hell out. She returns to the orphanage to find a scene akin to a charnel house and it fast becomes clear that she herself is the target for whoever is wreaking this havoc.
Elsewhere in the city is another young orphan – Oliver Brooks, who is cared for by his uncle, a merchant. Sent one morning to meet and bring back one of his uncle's shadowy business associates, Oliver returns to find his sole relative murdered and it is clear to all that he is the main suspect. The business associate, Harry Stave, seems to know something of what may be behind the slaying and the two of them find they must go on the run from the authorities. We learn also that Oliver is a child of the Fey – that he is infected with some of the natural magic that roams the remoter parts of this land like low lying cloud. To be caught in this magical mist might change you forever and those inflicted with the strange gifts the Fey offers are either controlled and regulated in the service of the State or locked away deep underground. And we learn too that Harry Stave is an agent of a dark organisation known as The Court of the Air – they are a shadowy cabal, the ultimate rule of law – and Stave is a renegade agent, or has at least been framed by others to appear so.
For the most part, The Court of the Air reads like an exciting chase tale – we keep up with the two protagonists as they run from their pursuers, though Hunt hides the "whys" and "wherefores" behind the narrative a little too much for my liking. Molly's plot line is reminiscent at times of The Wizard of Oz, though she is far from the bland, vacuous innocence of Dorothy Gale. She does, however, along the way through this exotic world, pick up an interesting assortment of companions, and one of the main strengths of Hunt's novel is the large and impressive cast of supporting characters - the highlight of which are the steammen, - autonomous, automaton creatures, who come from their own domain of this world and are presided over by their own ancient ruler, King Steam. These boiler driven beings have a culture and belief system all of their own and they are but one faction (and by far the most completely conceived) – either racial, political or geographical – of the world that Hunt has devised. This world is ingenious certainly, but with the exception of the steammen, it is also unwieldy – a vast world, up and down as well as from side to side. And this vastness and scope is ultimately the main failing here too – for Hunt simply is unable to keep all these story balls up in the air.
The marketing blurb for The Court of the Air cites Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy as a comparative work – and I would certainly accept this for at least the first two third of this novel. By and large Hunt has created a credible world, inhabited by interesting characters to which perilous things are happening. However, without warning, The Court of the Air takes a strange turn from which it never recovers. To me, it seemed as if all the invention of Hunt's gas-lit, magically animated, multi-layered and multi-levelled world reached a critical mass and suddenly swamped the story, drowning it in the process. The protagonists change without believable transition, most notably Oliver, who seems to lose every shred of his innocence and vulnerability, instead at times behaving like a rampaging serial killer. Indeed, the latter third of the book contains a violent streak not really hinted at previously. An invasion takes place in Middlesteel that prompts a complete political collapse and with it collapses the plot which seems to sink into a bloodbath that frankly, often left me feeling a little sickened and bewildered. It was at this point, the Pullman comparison was no longer applicable!
I can only speculate as to why this book came across as so schizophrenic in its construction – perhaps it is something that Hunt began working on many years ago and put in a drawer to germinate. Perhaps when he returned to it some years later, it was as Heraclites says "No man can step into the same river twice, for the second time it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.". Who knows? Whatever the story behind the odd tangential direction that The Court of the Air takes, it ultimately alienated this reader from what had hitherto been a highly enjoyable, atmospheric work.