Review: Stephen Hunt's The Court of The Air

In many ways, I am not a terribly discerning reader. I'll chew my way through books that are badly written to get at the ideas, and deal with prosaic, unoriginal ideas if the writing is good. However, Stephen Hunt's The Court of the Air has the most bizarre mix of superb ideas and bad writing I've seen in a long, long time.

The setting is a steampunkish, magic-using, New-Weird-ish one, obviously owing a good deal to both China Miéville and Philip Pullman. The lead characters are not one, but two orphans with unknown inherent powers. There are voodoo-using, Loa-worshipping robots, floatquakes which can throw segments of land into the sky, and restraining orders for those suspected of having wild magical powers. It's jammed with excellent combinations of ideas, some really good, evocative descriptions, and some of the worst dialogue I have ever had to read.

The thing that jarred most was the search-and-replace nature of the nouns. It's as though the book had been written with words like "communist" and "Marxist", and then, when it was pointed out to him that this wasn't very otherworldly, Hunt straight out replaced them with un-imaginative substitutes like "communityist" and "Carlist". The effect is genuinely annoying, and I really think it would have been better to use "communist" and something a little less recognisable for the Marxists.

There are other races in the setting, too - besides the humans and robots (steammen), we see "craynarbians" (humanoid crabs) and something called a grasper. Unfortunately, Hunt doesn't actually describe these races at any point, and I've only worked out the humanoid crab bit by inference. Beyond a vague notion that the graspers are monkey-ish and live underground, I've very little concept of what they look like.

It's worth reading for the ideas, if you're into that. But if bad writing, and having to work on getting through the book, doesn't appeal to you, I'd say you might be better off giving this one a miss.

Posted by Drew Shiel at December 5, 2007 3:17 PM

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