This is another Stephen Hunt novel, set in the same world and with the same characters as the previous two I have read, The Court of the Air and The Kingdom Beyond the Waves. While the last two were definitely steampunk-fantasy, this one has crossed the line to science-fantasy, with a heavy dose of space opera and time travel to leaven the mix. I really like the world Hunt has created, and I think it provides interesting insights into the kind of post-scarcity fantasy that has been under discussion here recently. The world of these books includes clockwork-run computers and steam “transaction engines,” as well as sentient “steam men” who are basically steam-driven robots; this is a kind of steam-driven cyberpunk, with a heavy element of magic hanging it altogether. It also has a basis in real world politics, with the kingdom of Jackals clearly modeled on an atheist, post-revolutionary Victorian steampunk Britain; while Quatershift is clearly post-revolutionary France, where the revolution turned horribly communist but revolutionary Britain remained free-market capitalist. These models for a fantasy world based in an alternative-history earth with different geography and multiple races, as well as druidic magic, are really fun to wander through. The world of these tales has a high amount of magic that is put heavily to use in the service of the state: law and justice, war, public transport and scientific research are heavily driven by a combination of magic, old-fashioned science, steam technology and mysterious semi-magical materials science. The world is identifiably Victorian but also wealthy and capable of stupendous feats of technology and human achievement.

In this novel, the kingdom of Jackals is threatened by a powerful force using very high technology to an extremely destructive end. Although the technology resembles space opera-level power (space and time travel, nuclear power and weapons, and beam weapons and modern aerial machinery) much of its impetus is derived from harnessing the magic of the land. As a consequence it is understandable by and – more particularly – vulnerable to the ancient magical powers of the druids and fey creatures who live in Jackals. The heroes of previous stories have access to these powers and use them to combat the invasion, but they are clearly outclassed and need to use all their wits and power to face their foe.

Just as in previous books, the narrative is fast-paced and exciting, and some of the characters very enjoyable – I particularly became fond of Commodore Black in this story – and the plot is fairly robust, requiring leaps of faith and imagination but not particularly unbelievable or inconsistent. We learn more about the history of Jackals and Quatershift, as well as their present cultures and the magic and cosmology of the world. We also get a glimpse of what people without a proper knowledge of science can achieve if they have magic and an ingenious turn of mind.

Also like the previous stories, this one involves a certain element of deus ex machina that can be occasionally frustrating. It leads to main characters gettnig sudden mighty powers out of nowhere to rescue them from mounting adversary, and also causes the plot to hang on sudden leaps of intuition or new-found abilities that sometimes stretch credibility. But the story is pacey and you want to know both the secrets of the enemy and how they’re going to solve the problems facing them, so it’s not a deal-killer; but it is frustrating at times that the story can only proceed through main characters gaining the grace of ancient powers.

Despite these small complaints, it’s a fun book and the world it’s set in is an interesting and enjoyable addition to the fantasy genre. Also, revisiting the characters of Molly, Oliver, Coppertracks and Commodore Black is fun, as is the rumbunctious and chaotic politics of Jackals. Stephen Hunt’s writing is fast-paced and fun, and his books more than hold my interest. Read this novel if you want to see Steampunk taken in interesting and challenging new directions.

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