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CourtOfTheAirHere's a book that I didn't buy myself, but recevied as a review copy instead - so here's my review of The Court of the Air, the first book in the Jackals series by Stephen Hunt.

The main description to sum it up (at least for me) was Steampunk meets Cthulhu in Middle Earth - this is enjoyable and full of drive, albeit not particularly well written in parts, and with way too many topics crammed into it. This is only Stephen's 2nd novel, though, so this might well be a promise for the future.

The story follows the paths of two orphans in the state of Jackals as they make their way through a Dickensian World during a time of upheaval and war. Both of them carry an ancient secret in their blood, which, as their strands converge, will… ah, but I’m not supposed to tell you, you’ll have to read this for yourself. But both have friends that help them along, but who have a hidden history and are more than they appear to be.

This vanilla story setup is complemented with a world that offers everything, literally.
There is a variety of technology – starting with steam driven Transaction Engines (Difference Engines?), an electronic ‘Crystalgrid’ for communications, we have Aerostats (Airships), and liquid based explosives contained in crystal.
But, this world also contains Magic – two kinds thereof, not just one. On the one side we have the Order of the Worldsingers, who tap the power in the Leylines for their spells and curses, and in the other corner we have the Feybreed, humans transformed by a ‘Feymist’ that rose from the ground – wild, untamed, dangerous magic. No, they don’t like each other.
The world contains a number of races – Humans, Steammen (steam driven intelligent robots), Craynarbians (crustaceans), Graspers (kinda Rodent shaped, short) and even more esoteric creatures.
Hunt has created his own language for this world – most of the terms are self-explanatory, and most of them help the ambience and the feeling for this world; a few typical examples would be ‘Topper’ (Assassin), ‘Whistler’ (Informant), ‘Crusher’ (Police/Security Heavy).
One of the most interesting bits are the religions – the main take in Jackals is currently Circlist (re-incarnation based). The real cracker are the Steammen – they have a religion called ‘Gear-gi-ju’, which essentially is a Voodoo Cult. They read the gears, thrown in oil they shed. They are ridden by Loas with names like ‘Steelbhala-Waldo’ or ‘Krabinay-Pipes’. And they all contain Soulboards, which must be returned the Hall of Ancestors when they deactivate. Wonderful. The counterside to these are the ancient pantheon of the ‘Wildcaotyl’, who Tzlayloc attempts to bring back in the Duitzilpachtli Deeps by sacrificing still beating hearts to them… do I need to mention where this comes from? Not? Thought so.

This a great book to read – it pulls you along, keeps throwing surprises and new concepts at you, and doesn’t let up until the final page – and you will be there quickly, as you’ll keep turning these pages!
The downside to this is that the entire setup is shallow and overcrowded. There are simply too many things crammed into this world – the Steampunk/Steammen elements, the politics with the Circlists and Carlists (Socialists?) and Communityists (guess), the religions, the technology, the different types of magic, all the factions including the eponymous Court of the Air itself.
There is a strong political agenda, as evident from several rants against Communityist agendas etc – I guess this tells us more about Hunt, and much less about the story. Not good.
The characterizations are not great – more time is spent on explaining technology, weapons, politics etc than in developing even the main characters, who remain very vague and contradictory across the book. There are strange and unexplained shifts in their behaviour, and any motivations/drive is rarely compelling, which is a shame, as these could be highly fascinating characters.

All in all I think this is a book worth reading. It is only his 2nd novel, so there is hope that he finds a better balance in the further books in the series (the next, titled ‘The Kingdom beyond the Waves’) will be out in 2008. Get it for entertainment, but don’t re-read and start thinking about things. Take my word for it.

More Stephen Hunt

Title: The Court of the Air
Author: Stephen Hunt
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL: http://skating.thierstein.net
Publisher:  Harper/Voyager
Publisher URL: http://www.voyager-books.co.uk
Publication Date: 2007
Review Date: 4 November 2007
ISBN: 9870007232185
Price: UKP 7.99
Pages: 582
Format: Paperback
Topic: Steampunk
Topic: Fantasy

 

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