Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Court of the Air and Beyond

Stephen Hunt’s Jackelian novels are often called “Steampunk”--and I suppose they do have the essential elements with their fantastic pseudo-Victorian sort of setting--but they draw from a much wider range of genre fiction tropes. In fact, all the factions, locales, and (dare we say) character types seem to make tailor made for gaming inspiration.

The first novel, Court of Air (2007), introduces the basic setting elements (and they’re a lot of them!) in a story about two orphans in the Kingdom of Jackals (Britain’s stand-in) who come to play a role in a world-destroying threat--a Communist stand-in rebellion secretly subverted by Lovecraft-by-way-of-Mesoamerica insectoid Elder Gods looking to regain the ascendancy they enjoyed in the last Ice Age. The heroes include an agent from the steampunk equivalent of SHIELD complete with helicarrier (the eponymous Court of the Air), a boy of the feyblood (super-powered magical mutants hated and feared by the world) who gains the magical weaponry of a legacy hero similar to the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, and a plucky young girl with ancient nanites in her blood linking her to the robot savior at the Earth’s core!

That’s only a few of the ideas Hunt throws at us. There’s enough for 3 or 4 Rifts supplements. We’ve got Middle Eastern stand-in Cassarabians with magical biotech, Steampunk computers like in The Difference Engine, airships (I did say it was Steampunk), and the robotic Steam Men. The Steam Men are probably my favorite element of the world--these coal-burning artificial intelligences field heroic armies of knights, worship (and are sometimes ridden) by spirits called the Steamo Loa, and throw the cogs of Gear-gi-ju to divine the future.

In the midst of these rapid fire ideas, there’s a fast-paced adventure story. This is true of all Hunt’s novels in the series (the novel’s are standalone, but they have recurring characters). The second novel, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, gives us a submarine journey up-river into a perilous jungle and a Bondian super-villain out to use ancient technology to take over the world. The Rise of the Iron Moon has a sort of War of the Worlds-esque alien invasion.

The world bears some resemblance to Tekumel in that civilization is fallen from great technological heights, and the artifacts of previous ages may appear like magic. It also contains a lot of stand-ins for real world historical elements--some of them with only the thinnest disguise. Quatershift, for example, is Revolutionary France with a mixing of various Communist states.

One characteristic of Hunt’s writing is a tendency to use portmanteau or sometimes punnning names. The world-saving robotic being is called Hexmachina. I’ve already mentioned the Cassarabians and the Steamo Loa. I could see this name practice irritating some readers.

I think these are minor quibbles. If you’re looking for good adventure fiction in a fantastic setting, particularly if you like sort of “kitchen sink” settings, I think you’ll find something in this series to enjoy.

19 comments:

Dr Rotwang! said...

SOLD! Hope my local library has it...

Tallgeese said...

The only thing I found truly annoying was the strawman ax-grinding about Communism. He is a Hofferite extremist, even though that is a bit of an oxymoron.

However, there is something rather Fellini-like in his creative process. A constant cavalcade of robots, etc., etc.

Trey said...

@Tallgeese - Yeah, I can see that, though liberal democracy also gets heavily lampooned in the Jackalian anti-monarchist features and (literally) combative legislative process. He seems to have a suspicion of group political action, period--or at least likes to point out its foibles.

Tallgeese said...

Trey, I think you are correct that he finds group political action suspect.

His robot society is quite amazing. I am sure I would be a robot monarchist in his world.

I also love the covers of these books. Very Verne-ian SF feel to all of them.

Nemo235 said...

I'm definately looking for this one. It sounds like it would be good inspiration for the Gamma World/Red Death/2nd Edition mashup I'm working on.
Post alien war mutants and creatures from myth and folklore collide. How will humanity survive?

Trey said...

@Nemo - I think you could find some inspiration here. That sounds like an interesting game.

@Tallgeese - I agree on the covers--and yeah, the Steam King is probably the coolest governmental figure in the book.

DaveL said...

I've had this book on my shelf for a while now, I guess I should take it down and read it, eh?

JimShelley said...

Wow, great review! What's interesting is that as I was reading it, I was thinking the series had some similarities to Piers Anthony Xanth books and then I saw that Hunt had a liking for punning names! :D

What I like about your reviews Trey is that rather than spend 90% of your time trying to impress us with some subjective critique (like so many reviewers are guilty of) you tell us what the book is actually about and why we might like it. I always come away from one of your reviews with the feeling I would really enjoy the book.

Trey said...

Thanks, Jim. Yeah, I tend to do more recommendations than reivews. Scholarly (or pseudoscholarly) reviews have there place--and I've done a few that have leanings in that direction, but mostly I talk about things that I like (warts and all) and what I think you might like about them.

Ohio Metal Militia said...

I GOTTA check this out. Sounds awesome.

Theodric the Obscure said...

I read the first two books and enjoyed them both. I have to say I enjoyed the first one more: I cared about the main characters more in the first book. Also, the Underworld evoked not only Tekumel but Lovecraftian elder gods for me in the first one, so I join the recommendation of that one without reservation for gamers. The later recommendation of the books, made above I blogged about a bit here: http://mythopoeicrambling.blogspot.com/2011/06/beastly-world-building.html

Trey said...

I can see that about the first vs. the second book, and I think I might agree--but I loved the Heart of Darkness-esque Steam Men gone savage of the second.

Akrasia said...

Thanks for the review. I'm intrigued! Will definitely have to add this to my list of books to read in the not-too-distant future.

Trey said...

Your welcome. I hope you enjoy it.

The Happy Whisk said...

What I find interesting sometimes ... is when writers who read, get so caught up in those minor quibbles. For me, if it's a good story, I'm okay with the other stuff.

Happy Reading, Trey. Hope you have a kick-ass weekend.

We're taking Miss Wiggy to her first doctor appointment on Saturday.

Big day.

Cheers!

Trey said...

@Whisk - Yeah, I think its a "forest for the trees" thing sometimes.

Sounds like a big weekend :). I'm doing some hiking and things with my nephews. Should be good.

The Happy Whisk said...

Ohhh, hiking. Haven't been in ages. The last real hike I went on we found a bat cave and cicadas were all about. That was fun.

Hope you have a great time this weekend. Tim's taking his mom out so after the puppy gets looked at, I'm fixing to play in the kitchen.

Do you have pets?

Trey said...

Nope, not these days. The odd hours of med school and residency made it difficult and I haven't got back into it since, though I grew up having animals.

The Happy Whisk said...

Understandable.