Stephen Hunt’s “The Court of the Air” is a steampunk adventure in which the fate of the world hangs in the hands of two orphans on the run. Molly is apprenticed to a brothel, but on her first day of work her first customer tries to kill her. As it turns out, she’s got a huge bounty on her head and is completely baffled as to why. Meanwhile, Oliver has spent his whole life secluded because he’s part fey and people are afraid of him. When his Uncle is murdered, he finds himself in the company of the disreputable Harry Stave, a member of the shadowy Court of the Air.
This book has so many things going on at once. There’s political intrigue, robots, airships, mutants, torture, Lovecraftian insects, human sacrifice, steam engines, and a frickin’ mushroom forest! I’m a big fan of the mushroom forest. At the same time, the author tries to cram too much action into one book, which means that if your mind wanders for thirty seconds and you glance down at the page, you’re completely lost. There are scores of minor characters who only show up for a chapter or two and then are forgotten about for most of the book. The author keeps introducing new characters up until the very end, and it’s difficult to keep track of all of them.
This is an adventure story, so there’s little to no character development. At the same time, the worldbuilding in the kingdom of Jackals was phenomenal. Jackals is governed by a Parliament, and political debates involve two opponents beating the crap out of each other with big sticks. The monarchy still exists, but the king gets his arms chopped off so he can’t oppress the people and is mostly around so the people can throw rotten fruit at him if anything goes wrong. The major villains are “communityists” who believe in enforcing equality by putting everyone into identical clunky cyborg bodies.
Hunt’s world is incredibly complex, to the point that I think that most readers will either love it or hate it. I’m rather ambivalent about it; I think it had a lot of wasted potential and could have benefited from some expansion. The book could have worked really well if there was a bit more explanation and we got to spend a bit more time getting to know each of the characters, but I felt like the story was too rushed to be fully enjoyed. There were a lot of individual elements to the story that I loved, but the book didn’t work for me as a whole.
“The Court of the Air” is the first book of the Jackelian Saga, but it functions well as a standalone. Because of the complexity of the story it takes a deceptively long time to read. I’d suggest it only if you’re a big fan of steampunk and have the time to digest it slowly.