#CBR5 Maneuver #17 – Secrets of the Fire Sea
Profile: Speculative Fiction, Steampunk, Fantasy, Mystery
After Action Report:
The fourth book in Stephen Hunt’s Jackelian series is a marked improvement on the third, but doesn’t quite recapture the energy or creativity of the first. However, the actual narrative line of Secrets of the Fire Sea is surprisingly clean and easy to follow, a vast improvement over Hunt’s pervious stories.
If you haven’t been following my various Cannonball blogs, Secrets of the Fire Sea takes place in Hunt’s steampunk/fantasy/sci-fi setting that started with The Court of the Air. And it is honestly one of the best steampunk settings out there, and continues to be wonderfully creative sometimes even surprising. I would go so far as to say that the setting is the reason these books are worth reading, as the stories tend to be retreads of obvious tropes and are only interesting because of the set pieces that make up the world.
Secrets jumps away from the events of the last three books and starts with a new protagonist, Hannah Conquest, a bright, precocious young girl with aspirations of joining the clergy of the Circlist Church. But when the Archbishop of Jago is murdered in her own cathedral, Hannah finds herself in the middle of a secret conflict that could destroy her city, her family and maybe even the world. Alongside her, the famous detective Jethro Daunt and his Steamman assistant Boxiron have been hired by the Church to track down the Archbishop’s murderer.
Hunt is back writing to his strengths, having abandoned the sci-fi elements that made Rise of the Iron Moon nigh unreadable. With the setting of Secrets moved to Jago, an isolated continent that is home to more mysteries than usual, even for a country in the Jackelian universe. Jago is one of the only places in the world where electricity works more or less correctly, and has evolved as a nation of underground cities with powerful turbines tapping into volcanic power to keep the air moving and the lights on. These little facts are just a few of the fascinating elements that Hunt builds into his books. They keep adding on to each other, with aspects of life in Jago linking back to the events of The Court of the Air and things that we learned about the world in The Kingdom Beyond the Waves. Still, Secrets doesn’t have the same creative spark, partly because Jago just isn’t as interesting as the rest of the world, but also because the only entirely new element added to the book, a race of bear-people, feel very tacked-on and undeveloped.
In spite of some lackluster world-expansion, Hunt has actually managed to cobble together a serviceable mystery novel. The core plot of Secrets is much more coherent than any of his previous stories. He does an adequate job of creating villains, both obvious and secret, and manages not to rely on a twist ending. Or rather, the events of the climax all have easy to read antecedents, if you know what you’re looking for. He still has a tendency to default to the adventure/exploration model to pad his page count, but it doesn’t feel out of place here. The murder of the Archbishop unfolds naturally into the political machinations of Hermetica City and the subsequent sleuthing.
Unfortunately Hunt insists on using a set of dull, stock protagonists. Hannah Conquest is a fairly transparent expy of Molly Templar and Commodore Black continues to be the exact same stupid character he has been in every other book. The team of Daunt and Boxiron are by far the most interesting of the main cast, but both of them suffer from a bit of optimization syndrome, where they are both a little too well suited to their current assignment and just happen to have the exact skills needed to move the story forward. I suppose I shouldn’t have expected Hunt to give up his Deus Ex Machina addiction cold turkey.
I’m not really clear on the direction Hunt is going with these books. Each new volume seems to introduce as many problems as it solves and I can’t help feeling like the author should stick to his guns and stop switching up his styles. Rather that experimenting with new types of story, he could be refining the adventure/quest model that made Court of the Air such a good read. At this point, the setting is the only thing that keeps me coming back, and that’s not a terrible thing in and of itself, but if Hunt can’t find a way to bring in new readers, the series is going fail before we have our fill of the setting.