The Court of the Air is Stephen Hunt’s first novel, but he’s no stranger to writing as he also maintains the Science Fiction Crowsnest website. The Court of the Air is the story of two orphans, who are pawns in a greater game and who will ultimately decide the fate of the world. Hunt has created a unique, intriguing and complex world for his characters to inhabit. He throws in a little bit of almost everything and the result is fun, if flawed, read.
The Court of the Air is part steampunk and part Victorian-era fantasy with a bit of Lovecraft thrown in for good measure. The world Hunt has created is the biggest strength of the book. His unbridled imagination shows through as he gives us wonder upon wonder, all jammed into the story. We get: Secret history, shadowy organizations, political intrigue, machine men, steampunk difference engines and internet, memetic viruses that infect both machine and people, underground cities, supernatural entities and much, much more. To say that The Court of the Air is a tour-de-force of imagination is an understatement. I found myself impatient to see what new, shiny idea Hunt would come up with next. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more stories set in this universe, it certainly demands further investigation. If you like ‘sense-a-wunda’, you’ll find it here in a psuedo-fantasy setting, with science fictional underpinnings.
However, the setting is also a hindrance. With so many ideas in the book, the story is stretched out to almost 600 pages.This, to me, is about 150 pages too long. At times it felt like the characters were being jerked around by the story just so we could see the next cool thing. In fact, the two protagonists don’t even meet until very late in the story. The setting can only take a novel so far, there has to be a great story to truly make the book stand out.
Unfortunately, the story and characters are a bit thin. As I stated, I felt the book focused on the setting too much, stretching the story out just for the sake of inventiveness. We’re basically looking at a political story of one nation invading another, by using a third party to help. Yes, everything is tied into the setting nicely, it just needn’t have taken so long for the story to resolve. The characters, especially the villains, are also thin. We learn quite a bit about the main characters, and the secondary ‘heroes’, but the villains are little more than cutouts of your basic madman character. And there were a couple of instances where the villain of the moment reveled themselves in a ‘you, the reader, haven’t seen or read about me before, but it is I, a villain!’ To which our heroes invariably say ‘You! It can’t be!’ Once I can forgive, but not when it becomes a pattern.
That being said, I did enjoy the story based on the sheer inventiveness of the setting. I’m expecting Mr. Hunt, as he continues to write, to hone his storytelling and characters to a finer edge. I look forward to the book where he marries an awesome setting like this with compelling characters and a tight story.