The Rise of the Iron Moon is Stephen Hunt’s third adventure set in the world of Jackals. The novel is an unequivocal mess, destroying most of what Hunt had built in the previous two novels. Another dual thread narrative exposes the inability of Hunt to balance his stories creating inevitable peaks and valleys in the enjoyability. At times interesting and other times a horrible slog, the book sacrifices most of the compelling characters to create an incoherent, disjointed and lunatic plot.
Both of Hunt’s narratives are led by female characters in this novel. The first requires the introduction of a new character by the name of Purity Drake. Of noble blood, Drake is kept in a prison that houses all of her kind since the coup that overthrew the monarchy in Jackals. Drake is prone to strange dreams, both sleeping and waking, that hint at ages long past. She escapes from her captors with the help of an unknown fugitive.
Meanwhile, Molly Templar, who was featured heavily in The Court of the Air, is again subjected to Hunt’s inability to make her anything other than completely useless. Within the first fifty pages, Molly is stripped of the only real gift she had, the hexmachina, a symbiotic machine that imbued great power and helped to save the world in the first novel. Molly is immediately reduced to a character with no tangible assets but of great import to the narrative.
After her escape, Purity Drake with her strange helper named Kyorin, flees to the Tock House, Molly’s place of residence. Their pursuers, bestial creatures called slats, follow them and a battle that is extremely reminiscent of The Court of the Air‘s battle with the court’s toppers (i.e. assassins) takes place. Kyorin is killed but Molly and Purity are saved by Oliver Brooks and Duncan O’Conner, a new character who Molly had taken in under unusual circumstances to nurse back to health. Prior to Kyorin’s death, he performs a sort of mind meld with Molly to pass on much of his memories and knowledge. It is then that Molly realizes the slats are the shock troops of an alien race.
Thus begins the unraveling of any sensibility that Hunt had thought to keep within his novel. In short order, the alien race destroys much of the continent including the Catosian League to the north, the court of the air hovering above Jackals and most of Quatershift, Jackal’s neighboring nemesis. Hunt destroys his creations with reckless abandon and little in the way of storytelling. It’s a mostly senseless act demonstrated by the complete lack of urgency it imparts on Jackals and the total lack of fear or tension it passes along to the reader. The interesting regional political dynamics that Hunt had hinted at or built his earlier novels around are decimated in The Rise of the Iron Moon.
As the political and scientific minds of Jackals dither about the lack of communications from neighboring nations and wonder at why their own aerostats are disappearing from the sky, Molly Templar, along with the steamman genius Coppertracks and the bumbling, dour Commodore Black, are frustrated that no one believes their wild tales of aliens and impending doom. Coppertracks continues to implore these oafish individuals to believe his cosmological findings of a second moon, an iron moon, among the celestial bodies and the nefarious nature of it.
Eventually, action is decided upon and it is ridiculous in the extreme; they shall all build a cannon to shoot a spaceship into outer space to deal with the aliens on their home turf. This process seems to be lengthy, despite the supposed impending land invasion of the aliens, and it imparts a weird sense of disconnect to the novel. While swaths of pages are devoted to the construction of the cannon and the starship that will take Molly and her friends to the iron moon, relatively few words describe the continued invasion and progress of the inimical aliens. Mercifully, the starship launches and takes our untalented protagonist toward the moon to somehow end the alien threat.
Purity Drake remains behind to fend off the alien invasion. The dreams she was subjected to while in prison are actually the memories of Jackals itself. Purity is a descendant of the first queen of Jackals who lead the country in a titanic struggle against an invasion aided by powerful heroes and heroines with incredible abilities. It sounds as if Hunt will follow his usual dual thread narrative with one storyline being far more compelling than the other. Tragically, he quickly stamps out any hope of that.
In order for Purity to reconnect with her past and resurrect the band of heroes, Oliver Brooks, arguably the best character in the series to date, must sacrifice himself. It’s a bizarre scene, in which the hexmachina again makes a random appearance, and it cuts the most interesting character from Hunt’s story far too early. As part of Oliver’s ritual sacrifice, a sword, called a mathsbalde, is formed for Purity to use. The mathsblade, root word math, allows Purity to adjust the world around her by changing the structure of things. Hunt makes some feeble attempts to tie the sword into a scientific or mathematical base but it fails utterly. It’s especially perplexing because the creation of the witchblade in previous novels provided Hunt with an equally interesting weapon that didn’t suffer from the need of a back story.
After claiming the mathsblade, Purity attempts to resurrect the hundreds of heroes to defend Jackals but, because she doesn’t believe in herself, she is only able to recall four of them. It is another frustrating scene because the lack of self-confidence is completely random and it’s eventual resolution is rather insulting. The heroes she does recall are, however, the best part of the novel: one with banshee like powers, another druid who fights in a drunken style, another who can run at incredible speeds and a fourth with preternatural fighting abilities. On a whole, they are entertaining as both secondary characters and underutilized by Hunt. Their connection to the history of Jackals is only briefly touched upon despite adding great depth to the setting and world building when Hunt does choose to write about them.
The novel continues to deteriorate towards it’s conclusion. Molly and her gang of misfits land on the moon and set out in search of the great sage that Kyorin directed Molly to before his death. Ignoring the fact that the protagonists land on the planet of a far more technologically advanced society without much in the way of complications, the true failure of this part of the novel is the difficulty in understanding where anything is happening. Hunt seems unable to provide even the most mundane of details as Molly traipses across various parts of the iron moon. Distances are obscure, places are unnamed and travel is not described. It leaves the reader entirely in the dark and makes for a disorienting story.
Eventually, Molly arrives at the leader of the alien resistance movement. The alien invasion is led by a race that has subjugated other peoples and drained their worlds of natural resources and life force but has somehow failed to blot out a rebellion on it’s home world near its base of operations. It’s completely beyond the bounds of what Hunt had laid out in his first two Jackelian novels and creates a disjointed world building experience in what should be a more consistent environment. To exacerbate the absurdity of the plot, Hunt reveals that the aliens are actually from the past and somehow related to the people of Jackals. It’s convoluted, poorly explained and embodies all of the worst cliches of time travel in science fiction.
As the narrative climaxes, Hunt attempts to weave his dual threads back together. In doing so, he subjects the reader to a painful father-daughter reunion in the revelation that Commodore Black is actually Purity Drake’s father. This knowledge, for no explained reason, gives her the self-confidence to resurrect the remaining heroes of yesteryear to fight off the alien invasion of Jackals. (Take note adopted children and those who have lost parents: It is impossible for you to have self-confidence if you don’t know who your biological father is.) This off-putting conclusion to Purity Drake’s storyline is an ill-fitting end to her character and any hope of being an admirable heroine.
Molly and Purity both manage to contribute to the rescuing of Jackals despite the former being a useless plot device for most of the novel and the latter being a useless emotional device at the end. Stephen Hunt seems to consistently fail to recognize the valuable characters in his novel. Commodore Black survives the course of the adventure constantly whining and moping and being indecisive about the course of actions. Duncan O’Conner, who had the opportunity to be an interesting secondary character, is relegated to lunatic status in another twisted father-daughter side story. The sentient starship, StarSprite, which was an interesting creation and could have opened the way for better future novels, is destroyed in a careless fashion in yet another twisted father-daughter side story. While the less compelling characters of the novel like Black and O’Conner remain, the best characters like Oliver Brooks, Harry Stave and others suffer ignominious demise far to readily.
The unusual underpinnings of the narrative create a novel that delivers questionable advice and morality. It is all portrayed through a set of uninteresting, often bothersome characters. With this book, Hunt destroyed most of the world that he had created and most of the indellible characters he had penned to this point. He chose to preserve the least worthy and least admirable of his creations. What was formerly a fast-paced, steampunk world is reduced to a confusing mess of unlikable personalities and terrible science fiction tropes. The Rise of the Iron Moon is barely readable and should only be embarked upon for the little historical context it provides to the previous two novels and the Jackelian world.
Rating: 2 out of 5