There is fashion in fantasy, as with everything else. After years of Campbell's space-suited heroes dominating the bookshelves, Tolkein's hobbits led the counterattack in the 1960s, aided by a hulking barbarian resurrected from the yellowed, mouldering pages of Weird Tales. But Conan and Tolkein's critters were only the advance guard, presaging ever less inventive series like Lin Carter's Rice-Burroughs derivative Jandar and the Alan Burt Akers Scorpio series.
Just as the fantasy revival looked to be running out of steam, new and much more grounded series began appearing at the end of the 1970s, with Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and the steampunk fantasies of Tim Powers and James Blaylock, and latterly Michael Swanwick and China Miéville, have made urban fantasy fashionable. Since Philip Pullman hit the bestseller list, stovepipe hats and magic seem to have been all the rage. With each trend, it's become ever harder for fantasy writers to make their worlds feel genuinely original, and not simply rehashes of our own. Stephen Hunt's debut novel, for example, seemed at first to simply belong to this latest subcategory.
The Court of the Air opens with orphan Molly Templar being returned from the business to which her local poorhouse has indentured her, not for the first time. However, rather than the expected thrashing from the beadle, she receives fresh employment, from a lady who is mistress of a high-class bordello. But things go wrong quickly; Molly's first client—an aged nobleman—turns out to be a killer who butchers Molly's companion and tries to assassinate Molly herself, before she manages to flee with him in pursuit. On her return to the workhouse she finds it a bloodbath, with her fellow orphans massacred. It is clear to Molly that she is the target. Aided by a robot "steamman," she flees to an underground kingdom analogous to post-revolutionary France, in which people even maim themselves to be equal—in this case with the disabled—and where those who fall afoul of the revolution's architects are denounced to the mob.
The novel's second major plot thread opens with another orphan, Oliver Brooks—who has been raised by his uncle—watching aerostats (this world's answer to airships) landing at a provincial town's airfield. Oliver survived the aerostat crash that killed his parents when he was a year old, then lived for the next four years in the feywall, an otherworldly region, before returning to our world to be raised by his uncle. Given that exposure to feymist for only an hour can lead to the development of latent psi-powers, that Oliver survived for so long apparently unaffected makes the authorities deeply suspicious of him, and he is required to report regularly to the local police station. There he is examined for telltale signs, which, if he exhibits them, will land him in an asylum or lead to his recruitment into the secret police. After his weekly interview, Oliver returns home to find his uncle's household massacred, and the only survivor Harry, a houseguest of unsavoury reputation. Together Harry and Oliver flee for their lives.
Meanwhile, Molly is saved by a motley gang comprising an Amazonian scientist, a reporter, a self-pitying ex-submariner, and another steam-powered robot. Together they visit the governmental archives, where it emerges that Molly has a rare blood condition, and that everyone else who shares it has been murdered.
Both fugitives are watched by airborne observers from the Court of the Air. It is this last thread that flags the book's divergence from a straightforward alternate Victorian England into something far more complex and strange, and in the process less credible.
In its early pages the book reads as if it is set in a parallel Dickensian London, but as the novel progresses the full strangeness of the world beneath (literally in some cases) emerges. While cities in the sky hover on invisible floatlines, and Molly is pursued by her would-be assassins into an underground world hewn by a race of Elder Gods, the reader must believe that a completely different geography and physical world will still lead to a society of hansom cabs, penny dreadfuls, and poorhouses manned by beadles, and where an analog of King Charles hides in a tree from parliamentarians in this world's version of the English Civil War and subsequent Commonwealth.
Hunt's worldbuilding demonstrates a shallowness of setting: over and over again, he simply changes a label to create the illusion of the fantastic. Whitehall is renamed Greenhall, the underground (subway) becomes the atmospheric, and card scythes (hackers) write "engine rippers" (Trojans).
The Court of the Air is a first novel, evidenced by Hunt's enthusiasm for throwing in every possible idea and plot twist (as opposed to more experienced writers who often ration their ideas, so that they have something "in the bank" for subsequent novels) and in the way he has tried to blend so many influences—from ransacking history, through Verne to the Cthulthu Mythos and even Doctor Who (watch "The Age of Steel," and compare the mass production of cybermen to "They... sliced her up and stuffed her into this shambling new body of metal and flesh"; p. 490)—but rather like a poor-quality sample, the original is still glaringly obvious.
Hunt tries to hide this by dragging the reader by the scruff of their neck through the story at such a speed that there's no time for reflection or characterization. While some of the minor characters are well sketched, there is a lamentable lack of depth to the major protagonists; the reader is told that Molly has "a year to go before your ward papers expire and you get the vote," (p. 4) and by working back and checking, we are able to infer that she is about fifteen, and she has an unusual affinity for machinery. That is the extent of Molly's character for almost six hundred pages.
Similarly, apart from what's been detailed before, the diligent reader is able to work out by a process of moving backwards and forwards through chapter two that Oliver is sixteen, but given that Hunt spends a page and a half detailing how this world's guns work, it seems a curious imbalance that the reader should have to work so hard to calculate something as basic as how old the orphaned hero and heroine are, given that at times they seem far older than teenagers, but at other times quite childish.
Hunt has poured a huge amount of effort into sketching a vast panoply of characters, but at no time does he do anything quite so prosaic as to pause from a helter-skelter gallop across his landscape and allow Molly to be a person, or Oliver to reflect on how his desire to travel is being answered with a vengeance—no room for a sentence of characterization, when the reader can instead be treated to a another page of plot twists.
It's all the more frustrating because in occasional glimpses, we see that when Hunt chooses to, he can write well. Consider:
He felt the thrum of the leylines in the bones of the earth, six great currents of power crossing at the top of Hawklam Hill. The mound had been a place of power and superstition for as long as Jackelians had lived in these lands. Ancient religions had raised standing stones here, spilt blood here, tracked the dance of the stars and buried war chiefs here. So much earthflow, so much power. (p. 496)
It's simple, it's elegant, and it's powerful. It's a shame that Hunt doesn't write this well more often. There's enough in The Court of The Air to make me think that with some brutal editing Hunt could be a writer to watch out for. Maybe his next book won't be the finished article, but the one after that—or the one after that—may be. But The Court of The Air is a big thick book that sadly is only a curate's egg—good in a very few parts, raw in some, but mostly overcooked.
Colin Harvey's sword-and-interpreter fantasy The Silk Palace will be published in the autumn, and he is currently working on a paranormal thriller, Blind Faith, an anthology called Killers, and a cookbook, Katy's Kitchen. He hasn't had much of a social life lately, although his waistline is expanding nicely.