With the opening novel set in the Jackelian world, The Court of the Air is a thrill ride that contains more ideas than it knows how to deliver. Author Stephen Hunt pits two orphans against a menacing evil, gives them power they don’t understand, allies that they can’t trust and asks them to save the world as they know it. The two primary story lines are uneven in execution and one protagonist fares better as a character than the other. The novel is, at times, a daunting read and Hunt fails to fully execute on some of the grand ideas but, on balance, it’s a fun adventure tale with elements of steampunk and fantasy.
Molly Templar is an orphan with a stubborn disposition who quickly finds herself in a great deal of trouble. Hired out by the orphanage as a prostitute, her first client makes an attempt on her life. As Molly flees and heads back to the only home she’s known, she finds nearly all of her friends murdered by the killer who is after her. Molly sets off to escape into the criminal undercity and quickly finds that she is part of a larger set of events.
Molly is aided by a pair of sentient machines who help guide her through the undercity until the killer finds them once again. Molly flees with the help of friends but is forced to deal with the reality that her pursuer will not bear any resistance, evident in his destruction of the mechanical men. Molly remains on the run for much of the book finding allies in unlikely places.
As she struggles to find out who is after her and why, nascent powers within her begin to come to the surface. Molly finds that she exhibits an extraordinary talent for mechanical devices, automatons and the sentient machines as well. This is all due to her anscestry that traces back to a brilliant and talented mechomancer (someone who can work wonders with clockwork machines) who saved the world in his time from an ancient evil. The evil gods are coming back and only Molly’s bloodline will allow her to engage her ancestor’s creations to seal the evil gods away from her world again.
Meanwhile, a young boy named Oliver Brooks finds himself framed as faux police murder his only living relative, an uncle, for unknown reasons. A visitor of his uncle, newly acquainted with Oliver, whisks him away to safety and sets out to discover the reason Oliver’s uncle was murdered. Much like Molly, as Oliver journeys through various nations, a previously dormant power emerges from within providing him with the means to save a friend and aid Molly in beating back an evil that was thought to be quelled.
Hunt’s book is an undeniably enjoyable read. It strives to be a fast paced thriller where the children are always threatened and the world is full of intrigue. The namesake of the book is a sort of secret police that monitor the country of Jackals, the home of both Molly and Oliver. Unbeknownst to ordinary citizens, the court strives to keep Jackals as a free and democratic society safe from nefarious persons and the constant threat of communist-style rebellions. The court was a creation from a previous coupe in which a monarchy was overthrown and the rebellion sought to prevent another centralized, singular authority from re-establishing itself or a dehumanizing commune from destroying individualism.
On top of the political intrigue and extended chase scene, Hunt’s book is rife with magic. Wizards known as worldsingers tap into the latent power of the worldsong to throw hexes and spells at foes. Hunt’s magic is old-school fantasy and he doesn’t bother to provide a firm set of rules or over-contextualize its workings. In Jackals, magic is magical. There are also a set of abnormal humans corrupted by the “feymist”, which grants them magical powers and usually endows them with superhuman physical abilities. These feys are feared and kept in control by worldsingers. Oliver is the only known human to have prolonged exposure with the feymist and exhibit no signs of abnormality. Unsurprisingly, he’s the most powerful of all the feys.
If this sounds a bit daunting to understand, it is. The author provides little precursor or explanation. The reader is expected to absorb new aspects of the world, magic and plot as they arrive at face value. While this prevents the novel from devolving into a series of meta conversations about how everything works, it can also be confusing and makes it easy to miss important aspects of the plot. For the most part, it works for Hunt but does occasionally fall flat and, unfortunately, at crucial times. For example, Oliver is gifted a set of powerful and magical devices late in the book: a “witch-blade” that seems to respond to his mental commands and a pair of revolvers that are elite weapons and bestow sharpshooter abilities on Oliver. It’s exceptionally unclear why Oliver receives these items, how they work or where they came from. As both devices prove vital throughout the climax of the book, their inclusion feels forced and unnatural.
Despite this, Oliver clearly gets the better story line and treatment from the author. His initial rescuer, Harry Staves, is an agent of the court of the air and, as the novel progresses, part of an internal power struggle within the court. Oliver never fully trusts Harry, for good reason, and, eventually, finds himself set against him. Meanwhile, Oliver discovers that a creature he initially considered an enemy, who Oliver calls The Whisperer, is actually his greatest ally and a fey-creature just like himself. The two make a potent team and Oliver’s relationship with Harry and The Whisperer is the greatest source of character development in the book. Where Oliver begins as an uncertain, ill-equipped adolescent, his interactions with Harry and The Whisperer force him to become a confident and capable adult. This transpires over the course of the novel in a fluid and subtle fashion.
Molly, on the other hand, remains mostly helpless throughout the novel. Her friends are forced to bear the brunt of her defense and her abilities rarely manifest in a particularly helpful way prior to the climax. Those instances where they do manifest are too often tangential and read as though Hunt is simply buying time; reminding us that Molly has abilities until he can devote the time to make them useful and important. Once he does, they materialize so quickly that the result is too opaque to comprehend.
Molly has the ability to meld into a kind of symbiotic relationship with the last of seven great machines built by her ancestor. Additionally, Molly is the last of the descendants with that capacity. The idea, as a concept, is very intriguing but the execution by Hunt falls flat. It isn’t clear what exactly this machine is, what it is capable of doing or how it operates. Worse than that, in order to deliver Molly to the machine, Hunt uses a tragically lame plot twist introducing another capable descendant at the last moment to prevent Molly’s captors and the evil gods from sealing their victory when she is entirely under their power.
Molly and Oliver are two sides of the same coin that other god-like entities are using to beat back the evil foes. Throughout the conflict, Molly feels of lesser importance and ability to Oliver who confronts both the evil gods and the nominally good ones as well. Oliver is critical in defeating the pair of enemies that he and Molly face down in the climactic scenes and then dictating the new order of things upon their victory.
In conjunction with Hunt’s lack of explanation regarding the mechanics of the Jackelian world, in some ways he overreaches conceptually with the novel. The book contains a copious volume of ideas: magic, steampunk clockwork mechanisms and aerostats, sentient robots, biological enhancements that grant persons superstrength through grotesquely large muscles or turn an arm into a club, crab like people with exoskeletons, ancient civilizations, blood magic, and on and on and on. Hunt does not lack for imagination but the quantity of the ideas muddies their quality as nothing is fully fleshed out. If Hunt wanted to avoid explanations of the unusual aspects of his world and let readers take them in organically, he would have been better served to narrow his scope and provide more depth of understanding on those aspects that he focused on. Instead, the novel can read like a cacophony of ideas rather than a symphony of harmonious melodies.
While the novel is not overly long, around 600 pages, it is a slower read than other books of equal length given the sometimes confusing nature of the writing. It is, however, worth committing to as the final product is very satisfying. Oliver, in particular, is a character that readers will want to win. The plot is straightforward and paced well — though it does struggle at times in Molly’s portions — with an eminently satisfying conclusion. For those that enjoy the fantastical, the magic and steampunk aspects of the book will stand out. For those that prefer intrigue, the court and its agents are devilishly compelling in the most paranoid of ways.
The Court of the Air is, ultimately, a fun novel to read.
Rating: 3 out of 5