The Court of the Air
Author: Stephen Hunt
582 pages • £12.99
When it comes to world building, Stephen Hunt can take his place alongside such eminent Magratheans as JRR Tolkien, Mervyn Peake and China Miéville. Creating a fully-realised other-world which feels new and different yet cohesive and believable is half the battle in a fantasy novel, and it’s a battle Hunt wins with honours.
The kingdom of Jackals and its quarrelsome neighbours are as fully realised as any New Crobuzon or Middle-earth, familiar in some ways, deliciously different in others. It’s part Victorian, part steampunk, part Gormenghast, with rubber buildings, robot religions and a compressed airdriven underground system (it’s crying out to be animated by Hayao Miyazaki). The socio-political details have also clearly been rigorously thought through.
Hunt doesn’t quite score such a resounding victory when it comes to the other half of the battle. His plot – almost Bleak House-like in the way it draws in everybody from the lowest to the highest level of society – meanders, as Hunt appears to throw every idea he’s ever had into the book. Two orphans go on the run when people who seem to know more about their origins than they do start trying to kill them – it seems they hold the key to World-changing events. Their escapades have a touch of the travelogue about them, while new characters and plot elements gatecrash with dizzying regularity.
Luckily, Hunt’s world is so rich and colourful it keeps you engrossed, and he has some Jasper Fforde-like fun with names (gunsmiths called Load and Locke) and a nice line in black humour. It’s a confident, audacious novel, but one that could have done with a bit of streamlining.