The second novel set in Stephen Hunt’s Jackelian World, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, is a clear improvement from its predecessor The Court of the Air. Both stories, while they share a common setting, are self contained despite the presences of overlapping characters in both novels. (I actually read The Kingdom Beyond the Waves first by happenstance.)
Professor Amelia Harsh, who made a brief cameo in The Court of the Air to rescue Molly Templar from the criminal undercity, opens the book on an archeological expedition searching for clues of an ancient civilization called Camlantis. Representing an era of peace and prosperity in the distant past, Camlantis is regarded as heretical by the senior university officials throughout all of Jackals. This leaves Professor Harsh bereft of school funding and forced to engage in questionable personal adventures to try and find tangible proof of the Camlanteans. Unsurprisingly, the questionable personal adventure she is currently on contains questionable people who betray her once the treasure is found. She is left limping back to Jackals further disgraced and marginalized.
The effort to find Camlantis is partly professional and partly personal as it was a similarly personal pursuit for her deceased father. Formerly part of the ruling coalition in democratic Jackals, business dealings left Harsh’s father broke and he committed suicide as, what he deemed, an honorable way of discharging the shame he’d brought to his family. The man who devastated his financial well being was Abraham Quest, the richest man in Jackals. Quest seeks out Amelia, who has a strong personal animus towards him, to head an expedition that Quest will fund to find Camlantis. Quest has tangible proof, in the form of an ancient book, that Camlantis not only existed but where it existed. Amelia reluctantly agrees and begins to assemble a group of people to find the ruins of the ancient society.
The expedition will lead to the heart of the Liongeli jungle which contains the Daggish or greenmesh, a sentient macro-organism that assimilates any other living creatures it can capture into it’s hive mind collective. The only way to avoid the greenmesh is to sail up the Shedarkshe river in a submarine. Amelia enlists Commodore Jared Black, perhaps the greatest submarine captain still alive and a former royal in hiding since Jackals democratic rebellion against the monarchy. Black entices former pirates and outlaws to crew his submarine including a crab-like engineer T’ricola, blind sonar man Billy Snow, former slaver Bull Kammerlan and others of questionable moral fortitude. With Quest’s submarine and mission, they set out for the heart of the Liongeli only to find a traitor in their midst.
This narrative thread of the novel was very engaging from start to finish. Amelia is believable as an obsessive academic who will do anything to clear her name with the discovery of Camlantis. The project also represents an act of filial duty to her father in a vain attempt to retroactively clear his name. The parallels with the captain and crew that Amelia recruits dovetail nicely. For Commodore Black, it is a chance to earn a submarine, his promised reward should they complete the mission successfully. For Bull Kammerlan, it is a reprieve from a jail sentence. For Billy Snow, it is the opportunity to foil Abraham Quest’s goal of resurrecting Camlantis. The dueling motives of the professed goals and the personal ambitions of each character is central to the plot.
Pacing, at times a weakness in Hunt’s previous book, is handled well. While the characters have a long journey to undergo and are often sidetracked by various problems, the book never feels meandering. Especially in the retrospective, as hidden motives reveal themselves, there is a better understanding of the difficulty of the task that was undertaken and the impediments that stood in the way. It’s a defter touch by Stephen Hunt with the pacing of Oliver Brooks’ plot from The Court of the Air but the larger cast of Molly Templar’s narrative thread.
Opposite Amelia’s plot is that of Cornelius Fortune, aka Furnace-breath Nick. Fortune is committed to destroying the communist Quartershift ruling council in Jackals neighboring country. The nations are separated by a cursewall, which can only be navigated by flying over it or using a submarine to go beneath it. Smugglers utilize the latter option while Fortune, with the aid of his flying, reptilian ally, Septimoth, utilizes the former. Fortune is a product of biological magic that allows him to shapeshift his features at will. He has also utilized Jackelian mechanics to augment his arm with a clockwork equivalent that hides weaponry. Fortune cultivates the persona of Furnace-breath Nick, a deadly assassin beyond the constraints imposed by the cursewall.
Fortune is tricked into rescuing a captive of Quartershift, Dr. Jules Robur, who is the most gifted mechomancer of his generation. Robur, it turns out, is working with Abraham Quest to resurrect the glories of Camlantis. After discovering he has been deceived, Fortune attempts to determine the connections between Quest and Robur, which eventually leads to his capture and imprisonment by Quest.
The Cornelius Fortune plot is clearly the weaker of the two story lines. Fortune’s background and hatred for Quartershift are never fully explained. His alter-ego Furnace-breath Nick is somehow connected to a sentient mask that Cornelius employs at times. The relationship is confusing and there are no real answers to be found. Where did the mask come from? Why does Fortune keep it? Does it imbue the user with additional abilities/powers? This all remains very mysterious and vague in a way that detracts rather than adds to the character.
Likewise, Septimoth is an unrealized companion to Fortune. It’s clear that Septimoth failed his tribe of lashlites (flying, intelligent reptiles) and was outcast from his society. His relationship with Fortune is opaque beyond their shared hatred for Quartershift. The reunion near the middle of the book between Septimoth and the other lashlites feels completely forced and a unsubtle plot device without the crafted care that Hunt uses to pen the Amelia Harsh narrative.
The climax of this novel is entirely different from The Court of the Air, which featured a titanic but defined scene. In The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, Hunt does a far better job of bring the two protagonists, Cornelius Fortune and Amelia Harsh, with their relative companions together to facilitate a more protracted end game. With nearly a third of the book left, the two story lines merge and the nefarious nature of Abraham Quest’s ideology comes to light. Hunt continues to offer intriguing character dilemmas through the climax without losing the feeling of tension. Quest does suffer from a villian’s propensity for ill-timed, lengthy speeches but it offers a chance to tie together previous events in the book that were seemingly irrelevant at the time. The foreshadowing throughout the book is brought to light in a expository way that creates a richer understanding of the novel.
The book is awash in metaphors on government and political ideology in much the same way as Hunt’s first novel. The extremes to which the various cultures and governments have developed makes them easy foils to write against. From the authoritarian hivemind in the jungle to the communist Quartershift, democratic Jackals, while not without its warts, is clearly presented as the ideal alternative. Fortunately, he characters and plot are enough to support the subtext, which is less abrasive than what the government centric characters in The Court of the Air espoused.
It’s impossible to read the novel and not have an appreciation for what Hunt has done in terms of world building. While the lashlites are a weak point, the introduction to the siltempters of the Liongeli and the hivemind are superb. Particularly the siltempters and the character Ironflanks are brought to the readers attention as a necessity of the plot and not just an author’s revelry in unrelated world-building. It’s mentally digestible and helps to further the escapism of the novel as something truly fantastical. The new creatures and the discovery of Camlantis allow Hunt to bring to life the Jackelian world in a way that augments his plot rather than distracts from it, as was often the case in The Court of the Air.
The Kingdom Beyond the Waves is a well done novel that improves upon many of the failures of the first book set in the world of Jackals. With a better and more balanced cast of characters to move the story line along, Hunt crafts an otherworldly experience that is rich and deep. If Hunt should ever discover how to better balance his dual plots, which appears to be his preferred book structure, the world of Jackals will be fully realized. For now, his second foray into that world is an engaging and eminently readable tale.
Rating: 4 out of 5