The Court Of The Air by Stephen Hunt (2007) 582 p.

I have come to the conclusion that I am never going to read any swashbuckling steampunk adventure better than the four books in Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series (Mortal Engines, Predator’s Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain). The man is king of the hill. There’s just no beating him. Yet I still have an urge to read steampunk wherever I find it, and I am almost always disappointed.

Such is the case with Stephen Hunt’s The Court of the Air, a novel that employs all the typical tropes of steampunk young adult adventure – orphans, epic quests, Victorian society, and loads and loads of airships. But it soon becomes clear that this isn’t a book aimed at young adults at all, as one of the primary characters is apprenticed to a brothel and the other encounters several brutal murders, all in the first few chapters. This was the first misconception I had, the second one being that this novel would be any good.

I originally thought The Court of the Air was set in an alternate Earth, but was proved wrong, as it becomes evident that this story takes place in a wholly fictional world. But Hunt has taken the lazy route and, rather than creating his own nations and societies, he has simply tweaked minor details to the point where it is very obvious which real-world nations the fictional kingdoms are meant to represent. Jackals, the “nation of shopkeepers” with an unstoppable Navy is very clearly England, Quatershift is France and Cassarabia is guess what? There are occasional flashes of creativity – the robotic steamman race and their mountainous free state was particularly interesting – but on the whole, the creative touches in this world are rather shallow. Even the characters are cut from stereotypical moulds: the plucky, bullied orphan who grows into a hero, his disreputable but highly competent adventuring mentor, the gruff retired military officer, the diabolically insane supervillain… all of whom Hunt regularly uses to dispense some preachy Heinlein-style “wisdom.” The absolute worst offender is “communityism,” an egalitarian political philosophy designed by a man named “Benjamin Carl,” which becomes a revolutionary ideology that ultimately fails, turning states totalitarian and resulting in mass starvation and oppression. I wonder what that could possibly represent. I also wonder why anyone would bother writing a critique of communism in 2007.

The story itself is crammed full of a million different factions, races, characters and storylines, drawn from sources as wildly varied as Charles Dickens to the Cthulu mythos. The effect of this is not an epic novel of dazzling variety, but rather a bloated mess. By the end of the war that takes place in the last 150 pages, I had no idea who wanted what for which reasons, and I no longer cared. It was a very similar feeling to watching the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

Having said all that, The Court of the Air is Hunt’s first novel, and as a writer he shows promise. At his best, he demonstrates a certain amount of imaginative flair and vivid writing. It’s just a shame that, in this novel at least, he’s rarely at his best.

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