The Court of the Air, by Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt – The Court of the Air
HarperVoyager, 2007, 582, £7.99, ISBN 978-0-00-723218-5

Stephen Hunt knows his stuff well – certainly well enough to plunder the works and worlds of China Miéville, Philip Pullman, Philip Reeve, Michael Moorcock and Joan Aiken. Alternate Victorian-ish steampunkish milieu, orphaned boy and girl with hidden destinies, battle between stubbornly human good guys and malign supernatural forces, multitudes of races living cheek by jowl, much intrigue and double crossing and ambivalent loyalties, airships … check, check, check.

The drawback is that sometimes The Court of the Air is like a mosaic of fragments of the above, with no overall picture emerging. It doesn’t help that while Hunt has constructed the world with meticulous care, there is a lot of world to get through – described in a very passive voice – before things start happening. But happen they do.

It is a curious creature. The ages of the two protagonists, early to mid teens, cue you for a young adult adventure, yet there is far too much grue and violence, while the characters are just two dimensional and asexual enough for it not really to be an adults’ adventure either. Sometimes you think Hunt is going for a light-hearted approach – evidence, say, the gunsmiths Locke & Loade. Yet no one so much as cracks a smile. Names like Silas Nickleby suggest a Dickensian influence, yet such names are all that Dickens would recognise. Sometimes it seems to be paralleling our own world, with obvious markers like Greenhall instead of Whitehall, but it goes nowhere. The eponymous Court of the Air exists outside of the government and beyond all legal control, to monitor and curb abuses of power within the government. In a book that is otherwise vividly angry about abuse of power and non-accountability, no one says a word about the obvious contradiction. The system of government itself has a grotesqueness that could only work in a fantasy novel (the king has his arms ritually removed at coronation so that he can literally never raise them again against his people) which overshadows any points that Hunt might make about freedom and tyranny.

And there are very good points – the kind that make you fold the corner of the page down so you can come back to them. One of the Court’s agents explains: “When you see a difference in a person and can find only wickedness in it – you and them – the them become fair game, not people anymore but obstacles to the greater good, and it’s always open season on the them.” Later on, the First Guardian (a.k.a. Prime Minister) clashes with the man whose philosophical writings sparked a revolution so extreme it makes Robespierre look like Louis XVI. The man brandishes a copy of his book and demands to know where he wrote that children should be stolen from their parents, that one state should invade another, that mass executions should be ordained for dissenters. The First Guardian’s reply: “The words might not be there, but that’s what it takes to impose your perfect beehive of a society.”

Great stuff.

The revolution itself is eclipsed by wild, chaotic forces utterly antithetic to humanity. Oliver and Molly must do their respective stuff and – aided by a massive war, much suffering and a repentant traitor who actually utters the words “what have I done?” – evil is repulsed. Freedom does not come cheap and is not taken lightly – another very positive message to emerge from the book.

I was surprised how glad I felt that the last two characters we encounter are two relatively minor ones, who also manage to be the only really likeable people we have encountered. Theirs are happy endings. Meanwhile Hunt can be applauded for resisting what must have been a strong temptation to pair the lead boy and girl off. They each have their parts to play in shaping and saving their world, but they meet only briefly and by chance, and wherever their destinies lie it isn’t with each other. Nor is there ever any suggestion that they might. This novel can be lauded in that it is very hard to picture a sequel. The story is told, and over. Refreshingly worth reading.