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Smugglivus Joint Review: The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt

Title: The Court of the Air

Author: Stephen Hunt

Genre: Fantasy, Steampunk

Stand alone or series: First novel in the series, but can be read as a stand alone.

Why did we read this book: A few months back, Stephen Hunt contacted us with a review request for his book. From the synopsis, and the overwhelmingly excellent reviews online, we eagerly accepted. So, with Stephen’s post today for Smugglivus, it’s only fitting that we review The Court of the Air!

Summary: (from amazon.com)
A hugely engaging adventure set in a Victorian-style world — a fantastical version of Dickens — that will appeal to fans of Susanna Clarke and Philip Pullman. Two orphans are more than they seem. And one megalomaniac will stop at nothing to find them…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.


First Impressions:

Ana:A stunning cover and an amazing blurb + Steampunk set in an alternative Victorian world with Fantasy and magical undertones = a very-excited-to-read-this Ana. The Court of the Air has a couple of very gripping opening chapters, full of promise.

Thea: I had to order this novel online as it only recently made its way to the United States–and upon its arrival, my first thoughts were: By JOVE this book is enormous! When folks say “doorstopper”, they must have The Court of the Air in mind. Long, heavy books can mean either prolonged ecstasy or prolonged torture, and I was desperately hoping for the former. And, I can safely say that whatever else The Court of the Air may be, it certainly is not lacking for action and intrigue! There is a whole lot going on in this novel–picture Charles Dickens meeting Jules Verne, then hopping into a steam-powered dirigible for a wild vacation with some Mayans. On crack.

On the Plot:

In the Reign of Jackals, the King has no arms so that he won’t oppress the people, the Fey are looked with suspicion, Steammen have souls and their own King and Gods, the Court of the Air keep an eye on them all – whilst revolution is brewing. Meanwhile…

Molly Templar, an optionated teenage orphan has just lost another job and thinks she is about to get in trouble with the man that runs the poorhouse she lives at. To her surprise, she finds out her services have been sold to a brothel. She undergoes some training but her first client turns out to be a murderer sent to kill her. She runs back to the poorhouse only to discover that most of the orphans have been killed or taken. She realises she is being pursued for some unknown reason and decides to flee and hide in the underground.

Oliver Brooks is an orphan who has lived with his uncle since his parents died after an accident. The very same accident which Oliver survived, after which he spends a few years in the mysterious feymist. Regarded with suspicion ever since – after all, no one survives the feymist without serious collateral effects – Oliver lives a very restricted life. When his uncle is murdered and he is blamed for it, he has to run with the help of the disreputable Harry, an agent of the enigmatic Court of the Air.

Molly and Oliver’s stories run in parallel while we find out why they are being targeted and why they are both so important – they may even save the world.

Ana:The plot is definitely the strongest feature of the Court of the Air. It is a non-stop action novel with plenty of paralleled threads that intermingle to form one cohesive whole in the end. There is an incredible, complex array of ideas that range from Politics to Philosophy , from Theology to Mechanics (and robotics) and Magic . I was rather awed at the sheer amount of ideas that were combined to form the story. It is clear that there is some inspiration from real life events – like for example, the French Revolution- or ideas like Communism and Marxism and they are renamed and rebranded in The Court of the Air to serve the story. And in my mind, it works.

With the Reign of Jackals being at the brink of revolution with enemies on the inside: the Fey that need and want their freedom for example or even the poor Prince who abhors the idea of having his arms chopped off as soon as he becomes the King. The idea that the King is there to serve a purpose that is not empowering is rather interesting as is the idea that the Steammen here are not soulless creatures of steam: they have their own King, their Gods and souls.

But there are also the enemies on the outside – the neighbouring country of Quatershift with its Commomshare revolutionary ideas ready to be spread to the whole world and with the help of a few ancient Gods of old.

The elusive Court of the Air is another intriguing addition with that idea of a Big Brother taking caring of things and observing the proceeding and it is never truly clear if they are evil or good or both until the very end.

Thea: I fully agree with Ana–the appeal of The Court of the Air lies in its meticulous world building, its politics, and the awesome scope of ideas presented within its pages. I am a sucker for political machinations in my novels, and The Court of the Air tackles some wonderful issues–and I was most fascinated with the clash of ideology and power.

‘It’s the old quandary. Who watches the watchmen?’

So says Harry Stave to Oliver as he explains the Court of the Air, and his role in it. The Court was established as a silent watchdog, or ‘the ghost in the machine’, if you will, protecting each nation from itself. Ana is spot on when she calls them a sort of Big Brother–the Court silently watches, making adjustments to ensure that security is assured. What happens when the watchmen are corrupted or mislead, though? As Oliver’s uncle–a whistler in the Court of the Air–is murdered, it becomes clear to Harry that there is a traitor, or someone selling out members of the Court, and with Oliver in tow he works to discover what grander scheme is at play.

There is this system of balances and restrictions to the machinations of power, perhaps beset seen in Jackals with their monarchs: once coronated, the King has his arms literally removed, so he can never “raise arms” against his people. Angry mobs out for blood are entitled to splatter and smear the King–effectively, the monarchy’s power is reduced to a literal figurehead role. Then there are the clashing ideologies, each convinced that theirs is the best (and only) way–Circlists and Communityists, with threats to the stability and prosperity of Jackals from within, above and below. As Ana says, the book draws heavily on historical events and ideas–from the English Civil War to the French Revolution, to principles of Communism to even Aztec/Mayan gods and religion. And let’s not forget magic–for The Court of the Air blends the fey and the magical with this political and ideological hodgepodge of a universe.

Suffice to say, this novel goes to many, many places–both literally (the poorhouses of Jackals, the dwellings of steammen, dirigibles in the air, a ruined underground city, etc) and metaphorically with the dizzying range of politics and ideologies.

I should also mention that Mr. Hunt draws extensively from other literary influences, and he does it very effectively! There are the Dickensian references–and truly, even the style of the book, the wordiness of it all felt very much like a modern Dickens–from the pensman Nickelby (Nicholas Nickleby), the industrial/political revolution-esque feel to the atmosphere (A Tale of Two Cities), Oliver’s namesake (Oliver Twist), and so on. And, like Dickens, there are a number of ‘happy coincidences’ in The Court of the Air, i.e. fortuitous twists and almost deus ex machina types of resolutions.

My only quibble would be that it all was SO MUCH. Information overload. The book is very dense in all its ideas, not to mention extremely wordy. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s overwhelming. (Another minor quibble–I am a stickler for maps and/or glossaries or a dramatis personae, and I sorely wished I had one here!)

The other consequence of such an all-encompassing macro-verse is that the plot itself suffered. Beyond the intoxicating blend of steam and history and politics, this is a book about two orphans on the run and coming into their own. And stripped bare of its glamorous shell, the plot itself isn’t quite as impressive–especially concerning the two main characters and their abilities.

On the Characters:

Ana: This is where all the promise of The Court of the Air is somehow lost. There is a plethora of characters in the book that is mind blowing in its quantity but none of them is given much depth, not even the two orphans Oliver and Molly. So much so, that I constantly asked myself if they were REALLY the protagonists of the story. After nearly 600 pages and many hours of reading, I still don’t know much about either of them. I know their place in the world (the orphans who will save the world because they are s special) but I don’t how they feel about it. Oliver connection to the Fey (and with the character of Nathaniel, the fey who is ever so powerful but whose body is so distorted and horrendous he can’t live in society) and with the demigoddess that is called the Observer are interesting but never truly explored with the depth that it begged. Similarly with Molly and her eerie connection with the machines. The most frustrating of it all though was how both of the character had a similar storyline, a similar DESTINY with a clearly connection between them but they hardly even meet in the book – out of the 600 pages only about a dozen is dedicated to both of them together.

With the other characters, the feeling that most permeates the read for me, was frustration. The story jumps from point of view to point of view and we are introduced to a myriad of truly, potentially fascinating characters: the disreputable Harry Stave, Oliver’s companion; King Steam, the King of the Steammen; Count Vauxtion and Captain Flare; and some steamman who are a gem to read about (my favourite characters were of that race) , I was specially fond of the steamman Knight that ends up helping Oliver. But unfortunately, with so many of them , with so many things happening in the novel it was rather difficult to learn and in the end, care about them.

The book is full of thrills and adventures, but it lacks that emotional input that makes one care for the characters – The Court of the Air appealed to me an intellectual level but I am, at heart, an emotional junkie and the lack of an emotional connection to the characters, was ultimately and unfortunately, a deal breaker. Still, as a debut novel, the ideas have such a strong potential, that I would not be averse to read more books set in that world. Not averse at all.

Thea: I have to agree with Ana again. I loved the universe and the layers upon layers of politics and intrigue…but ultimately this is a novel about two orphans coming of age and saving the world and all that jazz. Unfortunately, I could not connect with either Molly or Oliver because they never felt real to me. There is such an overwhelming quantity to this novel in terms of ideas, locations, and characters; and this translates to a decrease in the quality of the characters. As Ana says, Molly and Oliver do not even meet until very late in the novel, and at that point not much time is spent on their endeavors together! Similarly, we would get glimpses of fascinating characters. I loved the steammen (probably the most fascinating characters in the novel for me), the poor prince who fought against getting his arms chopped off, Harry Stave, Nickleby, et al. And yet, for all that, we only ever get a precursory introduction to each character, a surface level picture of them. I kept hoping for more from at least the two protagonists–this would make the more two dimensional supporting cast easier to forgive–but alas, it never happens. Neither character is really emotionally challenged or undergoes any growth–they simply are.

Final Thoughts, Observations and Rating:

Ana: The Court of the Air is a rather grandiose, epic even, story with several concomitant points of view from all of the players in that big game of who gets Jackals – there are battles, scrapes, dangers that the characters must face and all of it, makes it for a very interesting read indeed. If only the characters were as full of life as the Jackals itself, this would have been grand.

Thea: The Court of the Air is an incredibly ambitious novel–with excellent world building, but subpar characters. As a result, it kind of put me in the mind of those fake towns the U.S. government set up to test bombs on–perfectly stocked, electricity running, appliances shiny and new. Everything in the town is picturesque, right down to the mannequins that live in it. Which isn’t to say that this is not a novel worth reading–it is. For the breathtaking (yes, Ana, indeed “Epic!”) scope of the universe alone, this deserves to be read by any literature fan. And I certainly will be looking forward to reading the next books in this series, with hopes of more tangible characters.

Notable Quotes/Parts:

Ana: Nothing to do with political plots or steamman mechanics: the rather poignant teachings of a whore:

“But what about love?” Molly questioned.
“The greatest lie of them all,” Fairborn retorted. “A biological itch telling you it’s time you started churning out tiny copies of yourself. Weakening your body and ravaging your beauty. Trust me on this; it there was ever a handsome prince waiting for either of us on a horse, he took a wrong turn somewhere. Love is like winter flu, Molly. It soon fades after the season. Better you learn to master it, package it, label it with a price and start building a future for yourself with it. “

Thea: After a rogue airship unleashes redtips on Middlesteel, I really liked this passage:

‘Dear Circle,’ said Nickleby. ‘Our own city. I still can’t believe it; it’s like a dream’

‘Stuff of nightmares more like, eh?’ said Broad. ‘We’ll get to the bottom of this one and have someone’s head on the end of a pike for it.’

‘By writing about it?’ said Molly.

Broad furrowed his brow and picked up an edition of his broadsheet. ‘It’s easy to mistake this for a couple of sheets of wood pulp, m’dear, but you’d be wrong. This is a weapon. No less than that bloated airship floating about Middlesteel; and this can do a great deal more than burn a district to the ground. It can inflame an entire nation to arms. It can send the people stampeding in one direction or t’other at a polling booth. It can burrow into the heart of the flash mob and turn over the stone of the underworld so everyone an see the worms and maggots crawling through our sewage. It can uproot the stench and sweat of a Stallwood Avenue mill and slap it down inside the comfortable five-storey house of an articled clerk. It can take a selfless act of bravery and make it seem like the grossest foolhardiness – or it can take an idiot and raise him up to strut across the floor of parliament like a peacock.’

‘But it extracts its price, Molly,’ said Nickleby.

‘Not today,’ said Broad, pointing to the silhouette of the Resolute, still cloaked by waves of black smoke. ‘Today the city has paid the bill for us.’


Ana:I would give the world-building and the ideas behind it a 7 – very good – but the lack of depth of the characters make the grade drop to a 5. I will go halfway and say:

A 6, good.

Thea: 6 Good – If I were to rate the politicking and world building alone, it would be an 8. The less developed characters and wordiness of the novel drop it down for me though. Still, very good, and I will be on the lookout for the next novel!

Reading Next: Smugglivus Feats of Strength, aka The (Double) Dare! Ana takes on The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub & Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier; Thea reads The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins & Desperate Duchess by Eloisa James.


  • Kris
    December 18, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    While I’m a bit concerned about feeling overwhelmed by information and about the character development(which is an aspect that can be a dealbreaker for me), I am completely intrigued by this world. It sounds like fascinating reading.

    Thanks for a great joint review.

  • Chandra Rooney
    December 19, 2008 at 8:30 am

    I confess, I tried this book. Loved the world, loved the chewy plot, but just wasn’t connecting enough to keep reading. 🙁

  • Thea
    December 19, 2008 at 9:56 am

    Kris–I’d say give it a try if you can get your hands on a copy. It’s certainly not fast and easy reading, and can be overwhelming…but Stephen’s vision in creating this rich world is worth it.

    Chandra–Most of the reviews I’ve read for this book tend to say the same thing–great vivid world, interesting plot premise…but ultimately something is missing (characterizations). I definitely feel ya!

  • Li
    December 19, 2008 at 11:53 am

    Err slightly off-topic, but I can’t wait to find out what Ana thinks of DotF and you of Desperate Duchesses!

  • Kristen
    December 19, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    I’ve been looking forward to reading what you two think of this one after since I heard you were reading it. I agree with you both – this was a very creative book with some great ideas and a fascinating world but the characters were very flat. The beginning of the book was very intriguing but since I couldn’t form any sort of emotional connection to any of the characters, this one didn’t work that well for me in the end.

    The joint reviews are so much fun – I love reading about what you both think about the same book.

  • Heather
    December 20, 2008 at 7:03 pm

    Thanks for reviewing this! I’ve put THE COURT OF THE AIR on the back burner even before reading the review here (and y’all know how much I love steampunk), mainly because I couldn’t connect with the characters from the first few pages.

    But when the mood strikes for a book with Big Ideas, this book sounds like it will satisfy that itch.

  • SciFiGuy
    December 20, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    The whole steampunk thing is a draw but I agree with Heather about character development. Save the big ideas for when the mood strikes.

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