Christine Strelan - Between the Covers

The Court of the Air

Stephen Hunt

Harper Voyager 2007

Molly and Oliver are unrelated orphans inhabiting a surreal imaginary world. Their homes are in a sprawling city in the land of Jackals, an environment thats a cross between Jules Verne and Charles Dickens. Molly and Oliver struggle to survive in a realm of slang-speaking petty criminals, artfully dodging the draconian forces of law and order. Then, before you can say Oliver Twist, each of them is dragged off on a mysterious quest, which leads them into underground cities surrounded by giant mushrooms, or high overhead in balloon-like airships.

On the way, they encounter a mind-boggling array of creatures, including the shell-backed Craynarbian warriors, and the Steam-Men, who are a metallic race of robot knights with their own gods and moral codes.

Both youngsters are being pursued, for complicated reasons which become slightly clearer by the end of the novel. Like many sci-fi and fantasy books, the problem here is simply an excess of detail. Hunt has invented so many social systems, creatures, magical objects and vehicles that he doesnt explain any of them properly. Heres a typical sample: Indeed, dear mammal, said Coppertracks. I have already thrown the Gear-gi-ju wheels for Slowcogs and Silver Onestack, shed my own oil for the spirits. King Steam will want to receive word of their fate, along with the soul board of the controller. Reading the rest of the book doesnt illuminate these terms at all. On top of all this, there are characters with names like The Whisperer and The Observer. Its like being trapped in a King Crimson album.

There are also some heavy-handed political allegories, in which totalitarian societies of the Right and Left are depicted in all their oppressive horror. By the time I reached page 582, I did feel a certain admiration at Hunt managing to sustain so many baffling concepts throughout such a long novel. Personally, Id have preferred it if hed chosen fewer ideas and expressed them more effectively. Entirely imaginary habitats can be convincing if theyre portrayed in good writing, but Hunt gets so carried away by invention, he forgets to make the most of his ideas. Readers who prefer their narratives absolutely barking may enjoy this; the rest of us should just go and re-read Ghormenghast.

Books reviewed are available at The Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Square.


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