by Stephen Hunt Book : Fiction  |  1st U.S. ed
21st Century Dickens?   (2008-06-24)
Hunt, Stephen ~ The Court of the Air ~ TOR, 2008 ~ 582 pages ~ For adults, some teens.
"Molly Templar sat dejected by the loading platform of the Handsome Lane Laundry. An empty cart bore testament to the full tub of clothes inside, bubbling away."
The Court of the Air is secretive, powerful, and somewhat magical group responsible for insuring that the Kingdom of Jackals stays on the straight and narrow. In fact, its headquarters is in the air -- high above the kingdom. Yet, there are those in the Court who wish to collaborate with Jackals' enemies and dramatically change everything.
The story itself blends a variety of themes and approaches including steam punk, Dickens, Swift, and even a bit of L. Frank Baum to create an adventure story set in a 19th Century setting of dispair and inequality with many familiar British touches. Besides "regular" humans, other species are added to the mix to create a story that is both somewhat familiar and also very different.
An ancient evil civilization that prayed on humans has been vanquished, but may be able to return. Defeat of the evil rests particularly upon Molly and Oliver who live in Middlesteel. They do not know each other and meet only briefly later in the story. Each is pursued by unknown enemies who will do whatever is needed to kill them. Each will be harried accross Jackels and helped by strangers who may be true friends or potential enemies. Both major characters are nicely developed and readers will appreciate their growth throughout the story.
World building is detailed and complex. There is a wide range of characters. While some are stereotypical, all are interesting and the interactions keep pages turning. There is considerable action, especially toward the end, and the threat of action is nearly constant.
The story includes a strong didactic element as characters comment on and react to a society with great inequality and "justice" for the affluent and powerful and little or nothing for the many who are poor. A variety of perspectives are voiced and each seems appropriate for the context if sometimes heavy-handed. This aspect could be a great discussion vehicle for some classroom settings.
Hunt is well known as a SF enthusiast, commentator, and reviewer. His first novel is likely to be most popular and is recommended for all but the smallest SF collection. It has excellent cross-over potential since it includes adventure, historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy elements. The text is reasonably large and the print is dark. Cover art is true to the book and appeals showing a balloon and a character hanging from a rope from the balloon. The reader would benefit from a map showing the various places the two quests [Oliver's and Molly's] visit. A list of major characters and institutions with brief descriptions would also enrich the story since there are so many.
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