For the most part, steampunk is a versatile subgenre. The tropes and themes commonly associated with it, the trappings of era fiction and the wonders of industry, can be applied and reimagined in any number of settings. Today, literary steampunk can run the gamut from straightforward Neo-Victorian adventure to imaginative alternate history to the wildest flights of high fantasy.
However, there is always a risk of carrying things too far.
Stephen Hunt’s The Court of the Air (2007), the first book in his Jackelian quadrology, starts out in a reassuringly pseduo-Dickensian style. The reader is introduced to Middlesteel, the capital of the Kingdom of Jackals, with its cobbled streets, gas lamps and rebellious orphans slaving away in the laundry.
The sense of familiarity is quickly punctured, however, with a loving description of the ritual mutilation the Jackelian kings undergo during coronation in order to demonstrate their impotence against Parliament.
From here, the reader is engulfed in a blizzard of fantastic ideas, including humanoid crustaceans, sentient “steammen” with an interest in mechanical mysticism, “pneumatic buildings”, secret societies of airborne spies and quasi-socialist revolutionary, armies under the control of an ersatz Aztec god from a forgotten underground kingdom.
While the worldbuilding bears resemblance to the industrial fantasy of China Miéville, The Court of the Air sadly fails to present its world as a unified whole. Instead, the sheer wealth of increasingly bizarre details combined with unsubtle allusions to various real-world cultures makes the setting of the novel seem totally arbitrary.
To make matters worse, gaps in the explanation of certain aspects of the Jackelin world only end up corroding the suspension of disbelief. (As an example, the world of the novel operates according to both magical and vaguely scientific principles, but there is no real rhyme or reason as to which operates in what circumstances.)
The weakness of the setting is only exacerbated by a rather threadbare plot.
The story itself uses a common adventure template, telling the story of two orphans who lose their adult guardians, flee from assassins, meet new friends, learn the truth about their pasts and fight a postmodern Battle of Dorking. The characters do not really have much in the way of dynamic personalities and the two orphans generally spend more time receiving knowledge from others than uncovering it for themselves.
While some political and philosophical themes are discussed in the course of the adventure, there is very little nuance: most discussions consist of characters shouting slogans at one another. As a result, the book replicates the worst aspects of Victorian adventure, particularly the smug bigotry, narrow provincialism of thought and the view of outsiders as soulless cattle fit only for destruction by shot and flame.
As a simple pseudo-Victorian adventure yarn with excessive bloodshed and some evocative description, The Court of the Air succeeds admirably. As a “serious” steampunk fantasy, much better can be found elsewhere.
This story first appeared in Gatehouse Gazette 7 (July 2009), p. 7, with the headline “Stylistic Dissonance; The Court of the Air”.