Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Court of the Air


The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 3 stars
Length: Long and shows it (608 pages)
Publication: June 10, 2008 from Tor Books
Premise: The kingdom of Jackals has reigned supreme for years with the strength of its aerostat ships and its fey-touched Special Guard, easily pushing back incursions from the neighboring state of Qatershift. But the head of that state has found a different set of allies, ones who have been locked away and scheming for millennia, and the entire face of the game is about to change. Treachery is everywhere, and two ill-prepared teenagers are thrust into the center of the conflict, trying to live out destinies they don't understand. 
Warnings: Extremely frequent character death, torture
Recommendation: If you're looking for richly woven worldbuilding and are willing to accept the plot twists as happening "because," this could be the one for you. Following its twists and turns can be cumbersome at times, but it doesn't lack for exciting sequences.

How this one prances into left field and keeps going (in a good way): 

Most books have settings and tropes that are easy to pin down within a chapter or two: gritty urban fantasy, sweeping epics, dystopian nightmares, war in the vastness of space, steampunk adventures....authors find or create a niche and stay there. Stephen Hunt takes the intriguing step of fusing epic fantasy elements (chosen ones to fight the darkness, ancient gods of death and blood, supernatural observers trying to guide history) with well-designed steampunk technology and a Dickensian-era society. The blend works unexpectedly well, playing up the heroism in an age past the normal knights-and-banners fare; the characters are orphans and mutants, parliamentarians and rebels, and that focus on the teeming masses absolutely works. Steampunk technology used for weapons and mass industry both avoids some of the genre's normal camp and steers the morality into a hazier area than is typical of the light-against-dark battles of epic fantasy. Hunt uses both genres to their best advantage, and the blend is compelling.

The same holds for the government of Jackals, the obligatory England stand-in. Each member of Parliament belongs to a faction, and each faction is fiercely balanced against the others. It's made more exciting by the way members can challenge each other's motions on the floor using debating sticks to duel issues out. No one dies, but it's unquestionably a serious game and people are literally willing to fight for their beliefs. Their arrogance is paired with jingoistic national pride-- the crowds are constantly singing "Lion of Jackals," the national anthem, and rest arrogantly confident in the knowledge that with their monopoly on celgas (lighter-than-air plot gas) gives them the only airship army in the world. Given that the nearest competition is Qatershift, a communityist nation that makes the dystopian horror of The Handmaid's Tale look like a bad day at the park, it's hard not to see that pride as somewhat deserved.

Qatershift itself is well thought-out, taking the communist principle of universal equality to extremes that most closely resemble the workings of "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut. If everyone ought to be equal, the reasoning goes, then that should apply to inherent attributes as well as property and work. In an underground city where the ideology is new, fast people have their legs shortened, intelligent people are mentally crippled by the worldsingers (magicians drawing on the power of the earth), and beautiful people volunteer to have their faces scarred with acid. The population is brainwashed into chasing the lowest common denominator in the name of equality, and the momentum is such that resistance would be crushed immediately. On the surface in Qatershift, people are equalized by being sliced up and trapped in metal suits with emotions and hunger removed; their hearts, and those of enemies, go to feed the dark gods.

Molly Templar, the female lead, starts off as a mostly ordinary orphan with an unusual affinity for machinery and reading. The orphanage was home, but it was also too small to contain her talents, and she starts to grow as soon as she's out and away. Going underground to seek safety with steammen gives her a chance to explore her talent, and then to discover that her knack is much more: her blood contains a gift that both gives her mechanical talent and puts her in the path of assassins. She unfortunately tends to mope over people around her getting hurt, but she's also willing to take dangerous leaps when it's necessary. People in this novel tend to be suppressed and threatened for their magical gifts rather than being lauded for them (unless they're controlled), and her situation is no exception. On a genre note, I was beyond ecstatic to see that she and Oliver run into each other and don't stick together or develop a romantic relationship; in many ways, the way they have their priorities straight reinforces the seriousness of their struggle.

Oliver, the male and younger lead, manages to break the mold of his own childhood completely. Like Molly, he feels alone and unwanted. Unlike Molly, he seizes freedom with both hands and doesn't stop running. He's visibly young and nervous until he's given some magical weapons that wake up his more rebellious side...along with many past lives, including that of his dead father. He sees flashes of the past that aid him in combat and strategy, helping balance his youth with a proxy well of experience and skill. Given the implied grim history of the weapons and the ability to sense evil that they bestow, it would have been good to see such a young and sheltered boy struggling more, or at least reacting more vividly to the changes in his life; he's pulled away from home and on the run as a fugitive, going from a peacefully dull life to one with death as a near-constant companion.

Many of those changes are supervised and manipulated by an Observer, a higher being trying to use tiny tweaks in the fabric of the universe to save it from the coming danger. Oliver gets the rare opportunity to talk with an Observer about the rules that govern the world and understand how vital free will is. Between the Observers and the Court of the Air (secret agents of alleged good chilling in sky-forts), the stakes feel immensely high. The Court members constantly watch and analyze data before trying to intervene, while the Observers do the same with more power. No one but Oliver and another feybreed (the fey curtain sometimes touches people and makes them mutants if they don't die) knows how very many games are being played out on the final battlefield. The fate of the universe actually does swing in the balance even though no one wants it written out of existence, and this is one of the areas where Hunt's complexity and worldbuilding really shine.

The steammen are particularly fascinating, managing to feel like they're made of metal without being emotionless robots. There's nothing wrong with emotionless robots, but they tend to make better scenery than they do characters. Hunt's steammen have an incredibly rich history and culture; in many ways, they are the best part of the book. They do everything from insisting on sticking to King Steam's design for their bodies, even when choosing death over modification, to throwing cogs in a puddle of oil for divination. Some of the knights under King Steam are fiercely devoted to the sentient weapons that choose their own wielders, while one twisted fusion of three steammen enjoys painting. We hear all sorts of details about their culture and religion; King Steam plans the design of each steamman, and he is reincarnated into another steamman if he is killed. The description of their capital city alone demonstrates that their species alone could have sustained at least a novella without so much as scratching the rest of the background. 

The red pen: 

Picking out individual issues with the book is difficult in that most of the problems are linked to each other so deeply that they all seem like manifestations of the same issue: trying to do too much at once. The worldbuilding has passed the richness level of wonderful food and progressed into something overwhelming. There's simply more to absorb than is comfortable, and when there's so much on the plate it's much harder to savor any individual piece. The material in this book could have been stronger as a duet or even a trilogy with slower pacing and more time devoted to exploring the characters and the backstory.

Hunt is telling one story about a corrupt and brainwashed country invading a less-brainwashed and more functional country; he's also making it very nearly a side plot next to the larger issue of Tzlayloc, a priest of the ancient blood gods who is trying to summon those gods and create hell on earth. This plan's success is tied up with with the badly-explained Qatershiftian invasion plan and also doing something to kill off all the operators of the good magic robot hiding in the ground; the logic of that last part makes criminally little sense. Are all of these operators really confined to one country that happens to have blood registration? Why assume that the robot needs to die, given that it needs an operator and the only one was totally clueless until you started something? Individually, any one of these plots could be a good book; you could even combine them in the way that Hunt has chosen to, but it would take much more explanation.

That carelessness carries over to the characters as well. On one hand, authors who aren't afraid to kill the characters you've grown to like are bold; dying is what people do in dangerous situations, even if it's not convenient or fair. Glen Cook's Black Company novels do a really great job of that, establishing a gritty sort of fantasy-Vietnam flavor. The problem is that such deaths need to pack a bit of a punch, and Hunt seems unwilling to invest much time in anyone who's not one of the two leads. He often supples just enough backstory to make a character sympathetic, or just enough characterization to prompt a desire to see more....and then the character suddenly dies. This got so bad that at the end of the book I was honestly not certain if one useful secondary character had lived to see the dust settle. It's worse because Hunt keeps whipping out "no, this one wasn't actually dead because....plot point destiny?" as an excuse to bring characters back when he needs them, and other characters show up late in the story with no introduction. Did you know that this world has faux-Scotsmen, complete with bagpipes and kilts? Neither did I until they showed up as reinforcements in the last hundred pages of the book. Establishing the transitory nature of life is one thing, but this book tends more toward "throw them in the woodchipper, we can make more," which makes the scenes of people being brutally cut down later in the book seem inconsequential.

The main characters should be easy to care about, given how much they grow and struggle and suffer, but by the end only Oliver seems interesting. Molly is too angsty to have much personality after the first third of the book, and no one else really gets enough page time. This undercuts a lot of the surprise twists at the end. What's that, you say? This character used to be a famous wanted pirate? These two kingdoms have a treaty? That character is actually the father of the other one? These two have died suddenly? That's....sad, in theory. Too bad that the character spoke on a total of perhaps ten pages and had no personality. Stories that try to establish how serious everything is by whipping out big truths and major deaths in clumps near the end tend to fall flat, and this was unfortunately no exception. Those attempts seem all the more pathetic given Hunt's habit of ending on slightly misleading cliffhangers like "I know why she has to die!" and meandering off to another character set for twenty pages before coming back with a fairly calm, if interesting, explanation. No novel with this much material for drama needs cheap hooks.
The way the narrative rushes past so many interesting details becomes all the more worse in the face of aimless subplots. For example, Molly's indenture is sold to an expensive brothel. We know that she's unnerved and doesn't want to go into that line of work, but beyond that the details dry up to barely a trickle, revealing very little about her character. She's not forced to go through with it, there are no real details about the training process, and it's utterly flat. The madam of the house makes a speech about how prostitution can be a path to wealth and power; it's an interesting take, but not a unique one, and the detail seems to be a lumpy way to force the plot forward. Similarly, characters keep stopping for philosophical discussions or backstory when they're supposed to be on the run, in some cases literally "we need to run away from them or we will die so hard." When they're in mortal danger isn't the time for a history lesson about human sacrifice or even air-conditioning methods in the tunnels, and yet, that's what happens, much to the detriment of any accumulated tension.

All in all, the worldbuilding and sheer creativity that Hunt displays are wonderful, but trying to cram in so much at once made this more of a frustrating read than a fun one. I'd love to see a book about Molly in which she had and maintained a personality, or a book about Oliver that took more time to explore his reactions to coming into contact with past lives. I'd love to see a trilogy of books just covering this plotline and giving more attention to each person to make things less overwhelmingly hectic, but this one just doesn't pull together.

Prospects: The fourth book in this series, Secrets of the Fire Sea, came out in March. Each book seems to take secondary characters from the previous ones to be main characters in the current iteration, which is disappointing. Oliver and Molly feel as though they've barely been explored, and moving on to the next set of adventurers is better when the current ones have gotten in a good run. A friend is currently reading Rise of the Iron Moon (the third one) and assures me that it's good without having read the first two, but I doubt I'll be venturing back to this universe without an outpouring of rave reviews on a later volume.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
 ~The closest I can come is Hodder's The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, which is far from a clone but also does a good job of exploring different major factions in society and the conflicts between them. 

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