5 Points Book Review: The Court of the Air

The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt

From the back of the book:

When Molly Templar witnesses a brutal murder at the brothel she has just been apprenticed to, her first instinct is to return to the poorhouse where she grew up. But there she finds her fellow orphans butchered, and it slowly dawns on her that she was in fact the real target of the attack. For Molly carries a secret deep in her blood, a secret that marks her out for destruction by enemies of the state. Soon Molly will find herself battling a grave threat to civilization which draws on an ancient power thought to have been quelled millennia ago.

Oliver Brooks has led a sheltered life in the home of his merchant uncle. But when he is framed for his only relative’s murder he is forced to flee for his life. He is accompanied by Harry Stave, an agent of the Court of the Air — a shadowy organization independent of the government that acts as the final judiciary of the land, ensuring that order prevails. Chased across the country, Oliver finds himself in the company of thieves, outlaws and spies, and gradually learns more about the secret that has blighted his life, but which may also offer him the power to avert the coming catastrophe. Their enemies are ruthless and myriad, but Molly and Oliver are joined by indomitable friends in this endlessly inventive tale full of drama, intrigue and adventure.

1. One-Sentence Sentence: A socio-political, international-intrigue-laden, faux-victorian, steampunk, manic, magico-techno-sortof-thriller overstuffed with lovecraftian-ripoff gods, too many deposed aristocrats, barely-there secret police, body horror, fairies (in the fay sense), airships, unbelievably (literally) vast conspiracies, the menace of communism (really? in 2007?), artificial intelligence, ancient prophecies, pulp fiction and two convenient orphans, Stephen Hunt’s The Court of the Air is…complex–confusingly, needlessly, maddeningly complex.

2. Op-Ed: Ok, confession time: I’m a sucker for steampunk. No, actually, that’s probably not good enough. I love a good steampunk story. In fact, if I had the time, money and a cadre of like-minded friends, I would probably be a full on goggles-wearing steampunk cosplayer.

In point of fact, I like any story that manages to avoid the twin gravitational poles of heroic-epic-Tolkien-Jordan-fantasy and magic-in-the-real-world-potter-twilight-urban-fantasy.  Now, there are lots of subgenres and sub-subgenres and intra-genre niches that fit this definition of what appeals to me, but there’s something about steampunk that just appeals to the tinkerer in me.

The tropes that speak to me–the mad scientist, the polymath inventor, the airship captain, the class stratification, the explorer mentality, the labyrinthine cities, the Dickensian underclass–aren’t unique to steampunk by any means but they just seem to work a little better there. I wish I could tell you why clockwork or steam-powered technology intrigues me more than dilithium crystals or whatever, but I honestly don’t know.

(I’m glad that it’s finally out in the open. In 2008, when the Boston Phoenix and the New York Times came out with big “What is this Steampunk craze?” articles (here and here, respectively), I had already been a longtime devotee. If I had to pin down my first exposure/falling-in-love moment, it would probably be sometime around 1995 when in short order I stumbled into The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children and Final Fantasy III. Within a few years, I’d read Paul Di Filippo’s The Steampunk Trilogy, the first of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and well, it was on.)

Long story short, The Court of the Air seems to have been tailored to my tastes, but by the end I was deeply disappointed. In the broad strokes, Hunt’s world is breathtaking. The scope of the story and the scale of the worldbuilding are staggering. But, like pointillism, when you get closer the whole thing dissolves into a meaningless wash of color.

While reading, the book that sprang repeatedly to my mind was China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. This, by itself is definitely not a bad thing. Back in the day, it was Perdido that really opened my eyes to some of the stranger dimensions of fantasy literature. However, when my thoughts kept alternating between “oh, that was done better in Perdido Street Station” and “I wonder where my copy of Perdido Street Station got to?” I knew that the jig was up: fridge logic abounds, and the Oliver storyline hops from cliche to cliche before devolving into a full-on cliche storm after an unexpected (and ridiculous) level in badass.

Yes, I spend way too much time on tvtropes.org. No more links, I promise.

3. Thumbs Up: The Molly Templar storyline generally, and Molly herself, though I could’ve done without the prophecy mumbo-jumbo. As I mentioned up above, the worldbuilding is very well done, specifically in regards to how the various cultures are revealed through the actions and attitudes of characters and not troweled on in paragraphs of description. Additionally, I appreciate that much of the world was left unrevealed, as I assume the countries and cultures not gone into will appear in the sequels.

Among the more intriguing things left unexplored:

  • the bio-magical and gene-tampering Caliphate
  • the Aztec-inspired ancient culture that thrived during the ice age
  • the origins of the Steammen and the deeper workings of their society

The Steammen culture is worth a little extra attention here for being particularly original and well-written. A nation-state and corresponding diaspora of artificial intelligences, they aren’t robots of any sort you’ve seen before and that’s pretty hard to do.

Also, maybe i’m somewhat alone on this one, but I thoroughly enjoyed that nearly everyone Molly met in the first third of the book ended up dead a few pages later. Nothing like bringing senseless mayhem everywhere you go to get a character moving. Plus, Count Vauxtion, though hardly original, made a great unstoppable assassin. I imagined him looking like Malcolm McDowell in “Heroes”.

4. Thumbs Down: The Oliver storyline and Oliver himself. On top of the banality of the cliches I mentioned earlier, the kid is a total cipher with a mysterious past who…blah blah blah, even recapping it is boring. He gets dragged around by a frankly much more interesting character and ends up saving the world, except that Molly actually does all the hard stuff anyway.  And she gets a freakish zombie robot steamman as a sidekick, while Oliver gets…more cliches (a failed knight looking for atonement, a talking weapon so powerful it makes itself sad, a fugitive aristocrat who is also a pirate, and a twisted deformed mutant who is also a nice guy).

And on top of that, around 100 pages from the end, Oliver gets a few more layers of nonsense poured over his storyline thanks to some shoehorned plot about his parents and the pseudo-god-fairy-godmother who may in fact be behind the whole story from the beginning. Except she’s not.  Also, his powers beat everybody else’s powers combined.

Lord, why couldn’t this just be a fun adventure yarn about Molly Templar: scrappy orphan caught up in events beyond her control?

Sorry. Moving on.

Wait, no I’m not. Two storylines, both following orphans inextricably linked to the same country-, generation- and millenia-spanning conflict, and they don’t even meet up until three fourths of the way through? And then, after only a few pages, they separate for the entire rest of the book? Really? Are you serious, Stephen Hunt?

Ok, now I’m moving on. Here is the rest of the stuff i didn’t like, in list form:

  • The Court of the Air, the namesakes of the entire book, are underutilized, underexplained, something of a cliche and completely unnecessary, all at the same time!
  • The various countries and cultures, while all interesting, are somewhat transparent copies of real-world countries and cultures. (Dear fantasy authors, please stop creating fantasy versions of England. There really are enough of them already out there. Thanks.)
  • Communityism in general. As much as the idea of communists voluntarily submitting themselves to be trapped in perfectly equal robot bodies is disturbing, it is also silly. Plus lots more transparent copies of real-world things (communityism = communism, Carl = Marx, Gideon’s Collar = guillotine, ad nauseum).
  • Mcguffins: the super god-fighting machine, the airship fuel, the guns of justice, Oliver’s mystery powers (and Oliver himself, sort of).

Alright, clearly, I could go on. Suffice it to say that very little of this stuff occured to me while I was reading it. The pace is fast, the action good, and Molly at least is an interesting and exciting addition to the ranks of scrappy heroines.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Did I mention the merits of spending an afternoon perusing tvtropes.org?

5. Recommendation: I’m not sure I’ve written enough reviews here for this to be obvious, but the reason I’ve gone on at such length about the flaws in Hunt’s book is because I very much wanted to like it and I felt that there was a great story there (specifically Molly’s story) that got in turn shortchanged and buried by the rest of the narrative.

Read Perdido Street Station, then everything else Mieville has written, then come back and read The Court of the Air.

-3 Stars-

5 Points Review Scale

1 Star: I would never burn a book, but this really tempted me
2 Stars: Read this book only if you have no other books and reading is the only thing that makes the voices go away
3 Stars: Lousy book with redeeming parts or Good book with obvious flaws
4 Stars: Buy it, read it, loan it out, forget who you loaned it to, buy it, read it, loan it out…
5 Stars: This will be on the syllabus in my upcoming seminar: “The Best Books You’ll Ever Read”

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