No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, February 11, 2008

#17: The Court of the Air -- Stephen Hunt

Jackals, the setting of The Court of the Air, is at first glance a kind of steampunk Britain, where people play four-sticks (cricket), have a nice cup of cafeel, and rebel against the establishment in the name of Carlism. There are Uplanders with tartan kilts and sack-pipes; there are workhouses and a Royal Navy, albeit an air-borne one; and there are quite a few in-jokes, often rather nasty, such as the statement that 'no monarch shall ever raise his arms against his people again'.

But this is not our world. There are twenty planets in the solar system; the earth is subject to 'floatquakes' in which regions of land are sent spiralling off into the atmosphere, reminding me irresistably of early Yes album covers; there is something rather puzzling about the location of harbours; and there seem to be only seventy visible stars.

Also, in this world it is quite acceptable to use a single adjective, throughout, to describe somebody. I stopped counting instances of 'the disreputable Stave' when I ran out of fingers ...

But on with the book.

Molly is an orphan with a knack for mechanicals. Oliver is an orphan, victim of an airship crash that left him amnesiac and 'registered' as a potential feybreed, liable to express super-powers and / or start murdering the innocent. The fate of the world -- menaced by old deities with a taste for blood and a desire for stasis -- may well depend on these two, the sword and the shield, but they won't get far without help from their friends.

It's a compulsive page-turner, with new conundrums, characters and plot threads coming thick and fast. I'm not sure that all of those threads are pulled together at the end. When Oliver says, near the end, "my head is so full, sometimes it's difficult to think," I found myself entirely in sympathy. There are some marvellous notions in this book, some clever twists, some truly likeable characters. But it feels as though too much has been packed in. Genre staple after genre staple turns up. There are things like Cybermen, six-legged vertebrates, sky-pirates, swashbuckling airship captains, genteel lady archaeologists, computer hackers (a clever and witty steampunk variant, featuring the language Simple, which is clearly nothing at all like Basic), hexed torcs to control the Special Guard, red-lit subterranean cities, "lizard mammals" (nooooo), Elder Gods ...

I did wonder if The Court of the Air, with all its swashbuckling and intrigue, was originally intended for a young adult audience. There's plenty of violence, mutilation and torture, but it's often off-stage and seldom described in any detail. There's very little swearing and no sex.

I wanted to like this book more. I expected, from the reviews, to like it more. But I did feel there was far too much plot in there, not always fully resolved. Hunt's prose could do with another edit. There are too many repetitions and cliches: too many phrases ("as cold and as cool as the irrigation waters", "shattered down the door") that could easily be improved: too many scenes that feel rushed.

That said, I'm fascinated by the world Hunt creates, and impressed by his powers of imagination. I'll keep an eye out for his next one.

No comments:

Post a Comment