Before moving back to Japan I bought an eBook Reader (more on which later) in hopes of reducing the size of my bookcases (they aren’t so portable, really). I then stumbled on the horrendous problem of choosing books to read, since doing so no longer involves browsing a bookshop. This is challenging. So in the end I downloaded The Court of The Air by Stephen Hunt, which is an interesting mixture of steampunk, Victoriana and high fantasy, set in a kingdom called Jackals that is obviously modelled on Victorian England (“a nation of shopkeepers”, in fact), if England were built on the ruins of an ancient Aztec-styled Insect-god-worshipping society of infinite evil, were powered by magic and steampower, and restored the monarchy only as prisoners to be jeered at by a “free” populace.
So pretty much like modern England.
The story follows the separate paths of two vagrants, Molly and Oliver, who become entangled in a very nasty communist plot to take over the country by calling back the ancient Insect-Gods. This is exactly the sort of steampunk story I love (though of course I would have the catholic church doing the demon summoning). Molly and Oliver, of course, have special roles to play in helping or hindering this plot, and rest assured that the plot is extremely diabolical so they have their work cut out. In the process of doing so they get help from many different sources and run afoul/afriend of the mysterious Court of the Air, which are kind of like Cromwell’s secret police in space.
My characterisation of the story here is a bit unfairly glib, because all the fundamental components of it are great. The country of Jackals is a very nice little Steampunk version of Victorian England, the magic is interesting and fits the steampunk setting well, and the various technologies in use – transaction engines, steam-powered vacuum tubes for trains, rifles made with explosives from tree-sap, etc. – are very nicely done. It’s like Perdido Street Station if the latter were done in a quaintly Victorianesque manner, and very specifically tailored to be set in London rather than just any old megalopolis. The Steammen – a race of sentient machines with their own gods – are very very cool, and the feeling of a politically corrupt and personally dangerous 19th century London is very good, like Oliver Twist meets Lord of the Rings. In some instances there is, however, too much to digest and the book could perhaps have left a little of the detail out, for use in subsequent novels. Sometimes the amount of steampunk/magical innovations on offer in a single page can be a little dizzying. But I’m not going to complain about over-innovation in a steampunk novel, given how rare good steampunk novels are!
However, the novel suffers from one significant flaw: it has multiple overly contrived deus ex machina moments. On at least 5 or 10 occasions I think the plot must have been forced to its next stage only by judicious application of divine or semi-divine intervention. I don’t mind that the plot was all clearly building up to a divine intervention at the end – the purpose of the story was to manoeuvre certain elements of the plot into place to enable this to happen, so that’s fine – but there were too many occasions in the build up when things only proceeded due to divine, machine or extra-planetary intervention. It left one feeling a little robbed of purpose at times, even though in many instances the intervention was consistent with the overall plan of the story. A little more free will on the part of the protagonists would have been nice.
Still, overall it was a fun story and I’ll be reading the next couple!