Fantasy Round 46: The Court of the Air
Well, this is a book I read. It was mostly fun, I suppose, but I didn’t like it as much as the critics apparently did. The main storyline was fine, but the exploration of the world left something to be desired.
The Court of the Air, by Stephen Hunt, is described as a Dickensian steampunk fantasy novel.
And… it pretty much is, but it’s not really a good thing.
Too Much and Too Little
My primary complaint about the story was the worldbuilding.
I’d call it a fantasy kitchen sink, but it’s too overloaded for that. (Fantasy bathtub, or fantasy backyard pool, perhaps.)
There are no less than four fantastic non-human races introduced in the story, three of whom could be removed entirely or replaced by humans without changing the plot. And they just kind of… show up, for the most part. What’s a steamman? We don’t really know until after we’ve encountered more than one. It’s similar for the craynarbians and the graspers, and the last group, which can fly, is really only mentioned in passing.
There are at least four different methods of accessing magical power. There are the engineers, who can go to the point of building steam-powered cyborg monstrosities. There are more standard wizard-like people, who are purple-pollen powered. There are the people who have been changed by the feymist. There are the descendants of Vindex, who inherit a connection to the Hexmachina.
On top of that, there’s a magic sword and a magic pair of pistols that show up, whose power source and origin is never explained. Oh, and the god-like beings that the steammen worship. And some ancient evil gods who’ll give you power in exchange for blood sacrifice.
So let’s call that six or seven ways of getting magical powers in this setting. And they just kind of… happen, with a varying degree of explanation. The history and the politics of the world have similar issues.
It’s clear that the author it working to “show, don’t tell,” and I generally like puzzling out what’s going on from hints and descriptions shown by the author. But when there’s too much, it gets old. I’d like a clearer description on what these people look like and maybe some historical exposition and a map so I’m not constantly confused.
One of the reasons that Charles Dickens’ works were so long and convoluted was that he was writing serials, not novels that would be printed all at once. Each serial needed a cliffhanger, a way to encourage the reader to buy the next installment. Which, in turn, gave Dickens ample incentive to write many installments, with lots of twisty plot.
Stephen Hunt has no such excuse.
Sure, it was a fairly fun, rollicking adventure story… but I eventually found myself getting bored with the endless plot twists. I missed a lot of the fun of trying to predict where the story would go next, simply because there were so many elements that seemingly came out of nowhere. Once I knew enough to have a sense of what the story’s real antagonist was like, I started wondering: are we there yet?
Yet Mildly Entertaining
As you might have guessed from the reference to the Hexmachina above, one of the fun bits of the novel was the frequent vague references to things that occur in our own world. One of the more entertaining examples is the communityist (communist) ideals being written about by one Benjamin Karl (Karl Marx) and then misapplied by his ostenisble followers.
There are plenty of other not-so-subtle references to our own world interspersed through the story. There’s also a vague hint from the most ancient of the steammen (who are effectively steampunk AIs in robot bodies) that the laws of physics themselves changed millennia ago.
That leaves the reader to wonder: is this our world, changed and warped in a distant, impossible future?
Or are we just having fun playing with ideas in a strange alternative reality?
Either way, it’s a bit of amusement that helped get me through the “arg, it’s yet another new strange unexplained thing” parts.