The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt is the first book set in the Jackelian World. The next book that takes place in this world, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, is currently available in some countries including the UK. The Rise of the Iron Moon, the third book, will be released in the UK in February 2009. All the books feature different sets of characters, and The Court of the Air has a definite beginning, middle and end that makes it work as a stand alone book.
Teenage orphan Molly Templar, who has always have a gift with machines, lived in a poorhouse until one day when she was sold to the madame of a nearby brothel. When her first client attempts to murder her, she escapes and returns to the only home she ever known to find that many of her childhood friends in the poorhouse have been murdered. Molly realizes someone is targeting her specifically for some reason and flees to the underground with the help of an old friend.
Oliver Brooks has lived with his uncle since both of his parents died when he was young. For a time after his father died, he lived in the mysterious feymist until he was found. Those who spend time in the feymist tend to gain magical powers so Oliver is regularly tested to ensure he does not have any. Although he always fails to prove he has any supernatural abilities, he is always regarded with deep suspicion. If he was to exhibit signs of having magic, his actions would be controlled by a collar or he may be sent to an asylum, like the man he knows as the Whisperer who visits his dreams regularly, claiming Oliver is the strongest of them all.
One day Oliver returns home to discover his uncle has been murdered — and the authorities believe that Oliver is responsible. With the help of Harry Stave, a man of ill repute visiting his uncle, Oliver leaves his hometown and embarks on a great adventure.
The Court of the Air is a difficult novel for me to review because it is not at all a bad book, but it did not appeal to me personally. The beginning of the book had me intrigued with a world of humans and steammen (sentient machines) and a country in which the king was not honored but had his arms cut off and rotten vegetables thrown at him to discourage him from oppressing his people (it’s good to be the king!). I was curious about Molly’s innate knowledge of steammen and how Oliver’s powers would manifest. Yet the more I read, the less interested I was in what happened.
My favorite books are those in which the characters come alive and seem very real to me, and this novel was more about plot and less heavy on characterization, which is definitely one reason why it did not work for me. Neither Molly nor Oliver ever seemed to grow as characters – both of them seemed shallow with surface traits such as being an orphan or having a specific power. Although both characters developed new abilities, they never seemed to undergo any personal struggles or developments as individual people. As the story progressed, more characters were introduced and less focus was given to the two main characters and many of the new characters seemed interchangeable to me. I never felt I had any reason to care about any of the people in the story so I was never particularly invested in the end result.
The pacing was somewhat uneven and the book was far longer than I thought it needed to be to tell the story. It would begin to get more interesting then it would introduce a new character or set of characters and I would lose interest again. These additional viewpoints were necessary for keeping readers informed on various perspectives on the conflict throughout the world but it seemed like too many characters were introduced too late in the story.
The writing was not at all poor and at times it could be rather clever. The different types of societies in the novel were also rather well done and I did like the steammen (I have a weakness for AIs as characters).
The Court of the Air is an inventive book that I’m sure would appeal to many other people. However, since I did not care deeply about what happened to anyone in the story, it did not hold my attention.