Review: The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt

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
Source: Bought
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.


Find your own copy @ Amazon or IndieBound

Other reviews: Strange Horizons Reviews | Fiction Fanatic | Stella Matutina | Grub Street | Tia Nevitt | Deluded Visions | The Wizard of Duke Street

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.

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4 thoughts on “Review: The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt”

  1. I disagree that it’s not an alternative Earth, it totally is, it’s a kind of parody/extreme version of Earth society, that’s why you get the quite obvious Communist, French terror references. So I think you’re on the ball thinking it’s an alternate Earth, even if it doesn’t totally cleave to the same kind of historical timeline.

  2. I tried to read this and HATED it. It wasn’t anything about the characters or the plot, and I love the whole idea and aesthetic of steampunk, but the number of words that were invented and/or capitalized drove me batty and I couldn’t take it. Every time I read a review of it, I think, oh, I should try again; the cover’s so nice, the synopsis has orphans – but I’m pretty sure the made-up words would kill me.

  3. I agree with the last post regarding the number of things that were made up. It was distracting because I had to keep thinking, “now what was that again?” Also if I were his editor I would seriously suggest cutting down the number of characters. There are way too many, and a lot of them aren’t necessary, it just slows the story down with un-needed detail.
    I too love the technology side of it, but it needs to be integral to the story.
    The characters are quite a bit dull, I had more empathy with some of the poor characters stuck in machines than the main character.
    Also there are some really annoying ticks that the writer does; the characters are about to find something out and they go “oh no, do you know what this is….” etc and then he starts a new chapter without telling you what is going on. The first time is is suspenseful, but then it just becomes annoying; like a nervous tick.
    Also I found he used some really awkward use of words, like he was just going through his thesaurus looking for the most obscure word he could find.

    Is this is the first novel this guy has written? It certainly reads like it.

    1. I definitely think it suffered from “trying to introduce as much as possible” syndrome that some first books in a series get. A lot of what was in there could have been pruned and held back for later books, and more focus could have gone to the protagonists, who– as you say– weren’t altogether likable. I think part of that was they got buried by a lot of other STUFF and other PEOPLE, and their empathetic bits got lost in the shuffle.

      I’ve got the second book but haven’t read it yet, so I don’t know if Mr Hunt got better at pruning or not! I’m kinda hoping that he did, especially since so much was introduced in the first book. That should mean that less would have to be introduced in the second, right? I hope I’m right, anyway.

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