19. The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt
Publication: Tor Fantasy; Reprint edition (March 31, 2009) (originally published 2007), Paperback, 608pp / ISBN 0765360225
Genre: Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Steampunk
Read: January 25-26, 2010
Summary from Amazon:
When streetwise Molly Templar witnesses a brutal murder at the brothel she has recently been apprenticed to, her first instinct is to run back to the poorhouse where she grew up. But there she finds her fellow orphans butchered, and it slowly dawns on her that she was the real target of the attack. For Molly is a special little girl, and she carries a secret that marks her out for destruction by enemies of the state.
Oliver Brooks has led a sheltered existence in the backwater home of his merchant uncle. But when he is framed for his only relative’s murder he is forced to flee for his life, accompanied by an agent of the mysterious Court of the Air. 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.
Soon Molly and Oliver will find themselves battling a grave threat to civilization, an ancient power thought to have been quelled millennia ago. Their enemies are ruthless and myriad, but the two orphans are also aided by indomitable friends in this endlessly inventive tale full of drama, intrigue, and adventure.
Okay, first off: this is not a YA book. It may star kids, and it may have a YA-ish kind of cover, but it’s definitely not for younger kids. Older teens, maybe, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving this to a 13 year old. It’s pretty gory, and there’s stuff that happens to the kids that I would NOT have wanted to read about if I was a kid. That said, The Court of the Air was one of the most interesting, exciting, and fantastic books I’ve read so far this year.
At its most basic, The Court of the Air is a steampunk sci-fi/fantasy novel set in alternative world where robots and humans live together in relative harmony, magic causes people to get into all sorts of trouble, and politicians “debate” with fighting sticks. It’s pretty awesome, actually, and there’s a lot of stuff in this book. So much stuff that, really, I don’t want to even talk about it and let y’all find it out for yourselves.
I really liked the mix of magic and technology, since that seems to me to be the best way to make a steampunk world (although I may just be biased because I love urban fantasy so much), and I liked how there were two protagonists instead of just one. Molly, the one who’s good with machines, was somewhat of a bland noodle for me. I don’t think she got nearly enough character growth as Oliver did, and even though making her good with machines was an interesting twist (normally a dude would be the machine-person, and a chick the magic-person) I wish she had gotten to do something more than just run from assassins. Oliver got to kick tons of butts, but Molly just mostly got captured a lot.
The other characters were hit-and-miss for me. I really liked Molly’s new friends that show up later, and Oliver had some potential interesting compatriots as well. But I kept forgetting which politician was which, and whether they were actually important or not, and some secondary characters showed up in the beginning and then faded away. There was also at least one plot point that never seemed to go anywhere, for that matter. Oh! And some typos/wrong punctuation.
Because it only focuses on one country/city, you don’t really get to see what the rest of the world is like. I was constantly wondering what was going on in Asia, or America, if they were like this country was. And for that matter, where was this country? I’m thinking it’s England based off the accents and slang, but you never really know. I actually found that really frustrating– if I’m reading an alternative history, I want to know where it turned alternative and what went alternative, especially in regards to geography. A map would have been nice, as well. Plus now I just found this review which says it’s NOT an alternative Earth, but a whole new world. Oh, dear.
Also time. When the hell was this? the 1500s kept being mentioned a lot, but is that the 1500s parallel to our world, or an alternative 1500s that’s actually in the future? No idea. I did think that the plot really followed the French Revolution pretty closely, however, especially in the rise and fall of the revolutionaries and the new regime/old regime changeover. With new Added Communism.
It was the little things that failed me, I think, but the big things were enthralling enough that I didn’t really notice the problem with the little things until nearly the end, when I was waiting for the fight scenes to start. I think this is the deciding factor for those who either love The Court of the Air or hate it: if you like steampunk technology, alternative worlds, interesting and unusual protagonists, and robots, you’ll probably like this book. The bits where the writing/story fails won’t really bother you. If, however, you don’t like those things, or are a real stickler for story, then you might not like this book. I’d still recommend trying it out, however, especially if you liked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
The only place where the story-failing bits got to me was the end, which I won’t talk specifics about, but which (mostly) disappointed me. It does leave some room for a sequel or two, however, and whaddaya know: there they are.
I think my downfall with steampunk books is that I really like steampunk technology. Is this book as good as I thought it was? Or was I just blinded by the steampunk-magic combo?
You can read chapter one here, btw.