#CBR4 Maneuver #1 – The Court of the Air

Target: Stephen Hunt’s The Court of the Air

Profile: Speculative Fiction, Steampunk, Fantasy, Adventure

Summary: From the Back Cover, “When streetwise Molly Templar witnesses a brutal murder at the brothel she has just recently been apprenticed to, her first instinct is to run back to the poorhouse where she grew up.  But there she finds her fellow orphans butchered, and it slowly dawns on her that she was the real target of the attack.

Oliver Brooks has led a sheltered existence in the backwater home of his merchant uncle.  But when he is framed for murder he flees for his life, accompanied by an agent of the mysterious Court of the Air.  Chased across the country, Oliver finds himself in the company of thieves, outlaws and spies.

Soon Molly and Oliver will find themselves battling a grave threat to civilization, an ancient power thought to have been quelled millennia ago.  Their enemies are ruthless and myriad but the two orphans are also aided by indomitable friends in this endlessly inventive tale full of drama, intrigue, and adventure.” 

After Action Report:

I hesitate to post a review for this book, as it is one of the better sources for adventuring inspiration that my friends haven’t found yet.  I based an entire RP campaign off the setting, and one of my quiet pet projects is fully realizing the book as setting material for Pen and Paper RPGs.  This is also my second time reading the novel, but I’m comfortable starting this year’s CBR because it’s been more than a few years and I’d started getting more than just the little details wrong when I talked about it.

This should tell you a lot, not only about the book, but about the reader.  The value of The Court of the Air isn’t in an elegant plot or brilliantly realized characters.  In fact, the book barely manages to pull a conclusion out of the tangle of unresolved plot threads, minor characters and steampunk silliness that runs roughshod over the last half of the novel.  What it does surpassingly well is set the stage for a series of fantasy/steampunk novels, called the Jackelian Series, which can explore this immensely rich and varied world.

Court of the Air opens in the metropolis of Middlesteel in the nation of Jackels.  The Jackels, from which the series takes its name, is a unique hybrid of American frontiersman spirit, British sensibility and culture, and steampunk logic.  Molly Templar, orphan hero de jour, is thrust precipitously from her everyday existence and into the seedy underground city of Grimhope.  The book hurls names and ideas at you at breakneck pace.  Within the first two chapters, we’re introduced to three new species, confronted with the magic inherent to the world of the Jackels and sent whirling into the second storyline of Oliver Brooks, orphan hero #2.

Plot synopsis starts to break down here.  Principally, the action of the novel follows Molly and Oliver on their respective and separate adventures.  But the book frequently cuts to a rapidly expanding side cast for brief vignettes that run parallel to the two main storylines.  Unfortunately, few of these side characters are given the time or resolution they need to justify the repeated slices to them.  In the first half of the story, Oliver’s story cuts to the mysterious agents of the Court of the Air three times, introducing Lady Riddle, the even more mysterious leader of the organization.  They are never heard from again save for a Deus Ex Machina moment in the last pages of the book.  This is an unfortunate pattern which is repeated four or five times by the end of the novel.

Despite the frustrations of having to try to keep everything straight, the novel succeeds brilliantly at painting a world to enjoy.  The Jackels is a labor of love and Hunt has an eye for the details that even a casual writer could appreciate.  The history of the setting is a little blurry in this first book, but even so, we get a strong sense of the anti-royalist sentiments in the Jackels from their not so distant revolution.  And we see the lingering effects of a communist communityist uprising just a few decades previous that took the neighboring state of Quatershift with it.  Other nearby nations are introduced and given distinct cultural feels.  The politics of the world are hinted at and we’re even given a glimpse of the greater universe that the Jackels resides in.  The individual ideas that drive the various sections of the world aren’t exactly original, but they come together in Hunt’s mind to become greater than their parts.  And it’s those parts, those innumerable exquisite details, that give the setting the living, breathing feel that is the hallmark of all the great fantasy (and sci-fi) settings.

There is a minor character titled The Observer who appears a few times in Oliver’s storyline.  Her role is never clearly defined and on more than one occasion, the protagonists note that she’s a big picture kind of person and has trouble with the everyday details of the world.  As the reader, I feel that the opposite is true of the book.  While Hunt plays gaily with his world of clockwork and glass, showing off all the shiny facets, Oliver and Molly both get bogged down in arcs that inorganically transform them both while their paths tread a tiresome dance of capture, escape and capture again.  The quagmire of an ending gets derailed again and again by every minor character and their sidekicks while we wait for the Deus Ex Machina to show up and clean up the mess.

If you’re looking for high quality literature, you’ve picked the wrong book (and probably the wrong blog).  But sometimes it’s okay to look at the beautiful watch and admire the clockwork, even though the thing’s only right twice a day.  The Court of the Air is the best kind of broken watch, one that can be used to build a better model and with five more books in the Jakelian Series, Hunt has had the time and practice to make something really spectacular.

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Posted on January 2, 2012, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. What a *brilliant* idea to set an RPG in this world! Wish I could come over to your house to play it! I loved the world of this story so much but ended up giving up the book itself about halfway through because of the confused plot. I have picked up one of the sequels, though, in hopes he’s gotten his act together…..

  2. Heh… the setting material is a looooong way from being finished. For one thing, I need more of the sourcebooks. The U.K. to U.S. publication delay is KILLING ME.

  3. I know I’m coming in way late to this conversation, but I’m very curious since my reaction to the book was similar to yours. I don’t think I could go higher than a 2-star “ok”, mainly because I was so distracted by the shortcomings that I had a hard time enjoying the parts that I did like, which were plentiful. There were just way too many elements, any one of which was interesting, and he even presented them with some inventive new details. But then, on the other hand, I thought I might actually punch someone if I had to read “the disreputable Stave” one more time. I got to where I noticed it being used multiple times, then I got to where I couldn’t ignore it, and then I got to where it began to anger me that no editor had put a stop to it. I got lost in the plot when I wanted to be immersed, and it also felt a bit as though, with all those different elements and plots, at least a couple of them should have felt more distinct than building blocks from a kit. I did finish, in part because I bought it at the airport to read on the plane, and in part because I wanted it to be so much better than I came away thinking it was. However, my strongest reaction is that all those different cults and countries were broad in a way that feels disjointed in a novel but would make an absolutely fantastic setting for an RPG, and I’ve always wanted to do something with it myself. Then I read that you were working on it–not surprising that I’m not the only one to think of it–and now I’m really curious whether you got it fleshed out. I’m an inexperienced tabletop RPG-er but familiar enough with pen-and-paper and with PC RPGs that I might still give it a shot. I’d actually love to see someone do it well enough that it could actually turn into something official. Now WotC needs to get in touch with HarperCollins…

    • What I actually ended up doing was merging aspects of the Jackelian setting with Privateer Press’ Iron Kingdoms/Full Metal Fantasy setting and the accompanying 3.5 system. The result was a bit clunky, but we ran a year-long campaign in it without too much trouble

      In retrospect, I made a lot of the same mistakes as Hunt in that I made too much of the world available to the players and the story we ended up playing felt unfocused and rambling. I should have narrowed the focus of the campaign to one area or set of events. The party ended up focusing pretty heavily on the mystery of the feymist and associated nonsense, which was fine until I realized that there wasn’t enough deeper material in the books to drive that story to a conclusion. Hunt never really returns to the fey after the first book and the conclusion to their plotline in ‘The Court of the Air’ is really unsatisfying. I ended up borrowing a plotline from the Iron Kingdoms about dying gods to bring things to some kind of conclusion, but I don’t think the players were really satisfied.

      But aside from my failings as a GM, I consider the project to be a success. If I were to return to it, I’d want to shift the rule-set into something a little less restrictive. Maybe Fate Core or a corruption of Tri-Stat. I’m not familiar with GURPS, or it would probably work too. Hell, even Pathfinder would be an improvement.

  1. Pingback: Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #01: The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt « Cannonball Read IV

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