Saturday, 27 October 2007

Stephen Hunt: The Court of the Air (2007)

Published: HarperVoyager, 2007

Iain MacLeod's The Light Ages is one of my favourite fantasy novels of the decade, and one whose influence seems clear in Stephen Hunt's debut. The world here is very like MacLeod's: a pretty unpleasant early industrial landscape with magic. Rather than the nineteenth century slums of the north of England which interested MacLeod, however, Hunt is clearly inspired by the brutalities of the French Revolution.

Two orphans, one from an orphanage in the city, the other brought up on his uncle's country estate, suddenly find themselves hunted by ruthless killers: they are obviously special to someone, but they have no idea why. In the first half of the novel only the "bad guys" know what is going on (and even they turn out to be disparate groups all keen to trick each other, to carry out schemes designed to put their group on top). This works very well, and by the half way stage, I was thinking that this would be one of my top fantasy novels of 2007.

But then the story moves into a description of an epic battle, with encounters between many of the characters who have been involved in the story so far. This half of the novel is much more problematic. The battle, with ground, aerial and underground forces, as well as a mystical battle and a multiplicity of factions, is extremely complex, and Hunt never really gives enough of the big picture for it to cohere in the mind. (Admittedly, I was suffering from a fever when I was reading the end of The Court of the Air, so my mind was not at its sharpest.)

So, there are many excellent things in The Court of the Air. There are two that I have not mentioned so far: I like to see fantasy novels that stand alone, that do not have to be read as part of a series. Hunt also excels at a key skill of the fantasy genre author, the invention of names, which are vitally important in the depiction of atmosphere. Even so, it fails to live up to its promise, and left me sufficiently disenchanted that I have not even listed Hunt as an author I should look out for in the future.

1 comment:

Simon McLeish said...

I've just read Secrets of the Fire Sea, fourth in what did in fact turn out to be a series - I didn't remember that I'd already read Stephen Hunt until about half way through. Again, it has a wonderful first half, with a magnificently imaginative setting (a declining settlement on an island surrounded by a boiling sea) combined with interesting ideas about the nature of divinity. The second half is better than The Court of the Air, but is still not all that satisfying, with an ending which seems glib and poorly prepared, almost literally a deus ex machina.