Title: The Court of Air
Author: Stephen Hunt
Genre: Adult fiction, steampunk/fantasy
Rating: 4 tweaks out of 5
Stephen Hunt’s The Court of Air is a nutrition-packed meal of a book. Hunt has created a world, nay, a universe, to play in, and you’re going to learn all about it. Each sentence is a meaty mouthful, each paragraph another description of new technologies, societies, characters, and magic. I would call this novel immersive because you go deep into the world and it doesn’t let you out until it’s had its way with you. The only drawback to this is that it gets too easy to skim over the details and miss out on some of the colours in Hunt’s complex painting.
We start with an introduction to Maggie Templar, a beautiful, fiery, red-headed orphan with a love for reading and an independent, no-nonsense attitude. Maggie is a Good Guy, with very little in the way of quirks and generally likeable. She inherits trouble (often dangerous trouble involving assassination attempts and the need to run like mad) and wholeheartedly accepts the need to deal with it. In the course of learning about our fem-protagonist, we are introduced to Middlesteel and Jackals, a city of steampunk wonder in a strong nation of merchants and warriors. There are steampowered, sentient robots, a variety of humanoid races, and a whole lot of politics. Cool stuff.
Next, we are introduced to Oliver. Oliver is the male protagonist, also an orphan, also very clever, a Good Guy with nearly no bad qualities to speak of, and cursed. Sort of. As a young child, he was lost in the fey mist, a doorway into another world, exposure to which has a tendency of mutating people. Well, when it doesn’t kill them. Most people who stumble into it are found and confined to an asylum. Those who aren’t too terribly disfigured, though, are offered jobs in the Special Guard. Back to Oliver. He spent years in the mist, but exhibits none of the symptoms. He’s basically under house arrest, for fear that one day he’ll wrap himself in a cocoon and pop out the next day as a beautiful butterfly of mutant destruction.
But I digress. The adventure is complicated and exciting, pushing the world to the brink of destruction at the hands (mandibles?) of a race of insectoid demi-gods. Our intrepid orphans must scamper about, hunted and in constant danger of death, or worse, with the aid of an extensive cast of characters. There are political conspiracies and behind-the-scenes espionage within the society of overseers, the Court of Air, and within the anti-aristocrat political system of Jackals. There are flame-throwing gypsies, sewer ostriches, wizards, air ships, steam-powered knights, submarine captains, secret agents, secret-secret agents, biologic experiments, sentient guns, criminals, and a whole heap of other awesome things. Oh, and live sacrifices. Lots of those.
I enjoyed reading this novel quite a bit. Hunt has a definite way with words and an ability to juggle nations’ worth of people. He flung out handfuls of threads, heaps of them, and managed to tie them all together by the end. Masterful.
My only complaint is the density. With such a huge world, and our protagonists’ habits of racing across the entirety of it, the novel’s background overcame the storyline. By the time I finished learning about the machinery and methods of the giant transaction engine computers in Middlesteel and the diseases that can cross from computer into the human mind, as fascinating as it was, I had trouble remembering why the characters were there. The characters themselves were a small army, and I found myself, on occasion, wondering why they were there and why Hunt was telling me so much about them. Again, all these little details were amazing, very rich, but they tended to overshadow the plot.
To conclude, you should read this if you enjoy a fantastic tapestry of a brand new world populated by fascinating characters, and if you like your protagonists clever, powerful, and Good. You may not enjoy it if you prefer anti-heroes, light reading, and complex character relationships, or don’t like to see character death. Otherwise, have at ‘er!
Born in the sixties in North America, Stephen Hunt is a genre writer usually residing in Spain and the UK.
Before embarking on a career in publishing – magazines, newspapers and books – Stephen went to University in the UK, getting a BA (Hons) in Marketing, followed by two years of study at the London Institute (Saint Martins, the London College of Printing, Camberwell College of Arts, Chelsea College of Art and Design and the London College of Fashion).
After running the online operations for various large newspaper and magazine publishers, and the odd bank or two, Stephen found enough success from writing to become an author full-time.
Stephen’s early pieces of short fiction – mainly ‘cyberpunk’ works – started to appear in the early 1990s in various genre magazines such as ProtoStellar, Expanse, Roleplayer Independent and Hologram Tales.
His first book, the fantasy novel ‘For the Crown and the Dragon’, was published in 1994. It went on to sell thousands of copies in paperback and got praise in reviews as diverse as Locus, the Guardian, Science Fiction Chronicle, Arcane, Broadsword and various other newspapers and genre titles. The novel and its related short fiction sparked a sub-genre, flintlock fantasy, which crosses the tropes of Georgian and Napoleonic history with the conventions of the fantasy universe.
Apart from visiting his relatives in New York and spending time with his family in the UK and Spain, Stephen enjoys painting, Spanish cooking, shooting, reading, collecting comics, comic art and pulp works, and generally nerding about on his PC and Mac.