June 2008

A steam-powered kingdom of wonder

By Stephen Hunt
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Molly Templar, an orphan with a taste for pulp adventure stories, finds adventure of her own when a string of mysterious murders forces her to hide in a dangerous underground city. Her story intersects with that of another orphan, Oliver Brooks, who has fallen in with Harry Stave, a roguish agent of a secret police force, the titular Court of the Air.

Stephen Hunt's young protagonists are smart, resourceful and full of surprises, and their deepening involvement in the intrigues of their time makes for thrilling reading. Their adventures also serve to introduce us to Hunt's richly imagined Kingdom of Jackals, a character in its own right.

Powered by steam and a pneumatic transportation system, the kingdom dominates with its industry and its navy of zeppelin-like aerostats. The Court of the Air could be characterized as steampunk, imagining a version of Victorian England where the fancies of Jules Verne are a reality. But Hunt also infuses his world with a good deal of magic: a mechanical race of steammen who predict the future by tossing rune-like cogs help Molly and Oliver on their way, while ancient gods seek to reclaim the world for their own twisted purposes.

The orphans soon have their eyes opened to the dark complexity of their world, and as they fight to preserve civilization from the forces of a megalomaniacal revolutionary, Hunt's novel transforms into a canny political allegory, in which cycles of tyranny and rebellion revolve like the cogs of a clockwork wonder.

At its heart, however, The Court of the Air is an adventure tale in the grand old style, full of mystery, magic and skulduggery, as well as riveting bouts of gun- and swordplay. It is welcome news that a second book set in the Jackelian world, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, is on its way.

Jedediah Berry is the author of a novel, The Manual of Detection, forthcoming from Penguin Press.

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The Court of the Air

The Court of the Air

By Stephen Hunt
ISBN 9780765320421

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