(2011) Stephen Hunt, Harper Voyager, trdpbk, £12.99, 410pp, ISBN 978-0-007-28970-7
This novel is set in the same world as Stephen Hunt’s Secrets of the Fire Sea, which I previously reviewed here, but there’s not much overlap. Several of the major characters in that one weren’t human, and there was strong interaction with a true spirit world as well as an alternative form of cyberspace. There is little of that here, apart from another sentient steam-powered robot, a glimpse of his deities, and some remnants of a near-forgotten ancient past. One summary of the novel calls it 'Steam punk involving giant airships' and there is a great deal of that in it: with its Lords Bank and its Royal Aerostatical Navy, Middlesteel, the capital of the Kingdom of Jackals, is Victorian London in all but name, and the Empire of Cassarabia in the south is even more like our Middle East.
The big differences between their world and ours are that the dominant technology of the Jackelian Empire is steam-powered computers, and the Cassarabians' is genetic engineering – a set of skills which they’ve had for so long that a great deal of what they do is indistinguishable from magic. (They can change living humans into trees, for instance.) In Middlesteel 'Jack Cloudie' is the slang name for an airshipman, and the hero Jack Keats is a safebreaker with paranormal or near-paranormal skills. He's saved from the gallows and pressed into the Aerostatical Navy to work a deadly experimental prototype which is so radical that (like our modern aircraft) it can only be flown through the mediation of its onboard computer.
Yes, it is a coal-fired, steam-powered computer on an airship. It helps to remember that magic is an element of technology in this world! Even more so when you realise that this airship is a floating ironclad, with variable geometry, large-bore artillery, and internal decks including a manger for the marines’ horses. You know who you can tell that to… Yet its lift comes not from an element like hydrogen but from 'celgas' – non-explosive (page 80), but not helium, it's a compound which can be manufactured (p.96). Despite that, its lifting chambers are much smaller than they would be in our world’s airships. It might float in twenty or thirty times our atmospheric pressure, but since nobody suffers from oxygen or nitrogen narcosis… no, it’s magic!
The mission of the Iron Partridge, with a broken captain and a psychotic first officer, is to find out how the Cassarabians have suddenly been able to float a fleet of ships, serious competitors with the RAN's, where their only previous airpower consisted of mutated lizards, 'draks', roughly the size of Anne McCaffrey's dragons rather than Naomi Novik's. (See Tongues of Serpents.) Jack Keats's career in the ironclad parallels Omar Barir's induction into the imperial guard of drak fliers, and of course their paths are destined to cross as the story continues. When they do, in the ancient mountain city dating from the forgotten past, my only disappointment is that the outcome has more to do with a set-piece battle up and down the levels of the city, between various types of mutated spear-carriers, than it does with the interactions of the characters. As I said last time, the tributes to Stephen Hunt's imagination are well deserved, but there are times when reining it a little would help.
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