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Stephen Hunt's The Court of the Air

           The_court_of_the_air      Huntdroid

The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt is an entertaining romp of a novel that should satisfy readers of fantasy, SF, and Steampunk alike. As fantasist extraordinaire Jay Lake has said of The Court of the Air, "If Charles Dickens and Jack Vance had ever collaborated, they might have written this book...a collision between English letters and the hard-edged vision of grunge fantasy." Rogues, brothels, murders, balloons, and orphans populate this clever adventure. Hunt recently signed a major six-book deal and has had much (and well-deserved) movie interest in his work. I recently caught up with Hunt via email to find out more about this inventive UK writer. Can you describe for readers where you are as you’re answering these questions?
Stephen Hunt: I’m actually reading the questions and blasting the answers out on my laptop as I’m on the train. I get most of the writing for my novels done on the hoof – normally on the train as I commute back and forth in the mornings, or the dead time when I’m stuck in hotels in the evening. It used to be said that a private in the army would learn to snatch sleep in five-minute bursts while standing ramrod straight on a parade ground. I’ve learnt the same trick for pushing out wordage, but doing so while queuing in Starbucks or stuck on the Tube/Subway/Metro! How long have you been writing? Is this your first novel?
Hunt: I’ve had short fiction published in magazines as early as 1990, and I was writing professionally before that for computer and RPG magazines while I was at college. For a long time my day job was as an editor, web site manager and publisher for various national newspapers and magazines in the UK, but The Court of the Air is very much my first professionally published novel by two big name imprints – HarperCollins Voyager in the UK, and Tor in the USA. I feel very flattered to be sharing my publishing roof with so many of my own favourite authors--everyone from JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis in the UK, to Poul Anderson and Robert Jordan state-side via Tor. Who would you cite as influences on your fiction?
Hunt: I was lucky that my dad has been a serious science fiction and fantasy fan since before World War Two, so I grew up with a massive genre library that began with A for Asimov and ended with Z for Zelazny. I would say they’ve all been influences, literally hundreds of writers running around in my mind, but some of my particular genre super-favourites have been authors like William Gibson, Arthur C Clarke, Michael Moorcock, EE Doc Smith, Jack Vance, Tolkien, David Gemmell, Clifford D Simak, David Weber, Piers Anthony and David Eddings. On the non-SFF front, I’d claim writers like Martin Amis, Len Deighton, Bernard Cornwall, Tom Clancy, Khaled Hosseini and Tom Wolfe. If you’re including graphic novels, Alan Moore and Frank Miller are my two personal titans bestriding the field. I originally wanted to be a comic-book illustrator: in fact, I specifically wanted to be Mœbius...but my influences list here would also include Masamune Shirow and a whole heap of the TokyoPop crowd. To what extent, by your own definition, is this a steampunk novel?
Hunt: I believe I thought of The Court of the Air in my own mind first and foremost as a fantasy novel, albeit with some SF elements blended in. Of course, the culture the novel is set in--the Kingdom of Jackals--is early Victorian/late Georgian in basis, and it has airship cities and u-boats and steammen, so steampunk is a label that lots of genre fans have been quite naturally applying to it.

I find the Napoleonic and Victorian era a lot more romantic (if you excuse the pun), than the furry pants and codpiece societies of a lot of traditional literary fantasy settings. It probably comes from reading too much Kipling, HG Wells and Jules Verne at an early age, and watching movies like Zulu on the BBC on cold Sunday afternoons. The Court of the Air was one of the ten books last year--and the only fantasy/SF novel--selected by the Berlinale bigwigs for presentation to all the producers and directors at the world’s largest film festival (60,000 movie professionals or something ridiculous), and I believe the Hollywood people in Berlin were talking of it as "Dickens meets Bladerunner," which is rather a cool steampunk’ish elevator pitch, if I’ve ever heard one. What was the hardest part of writing the novel?
Hunt: The Court of the Air never felt hard to write, more like a dam breaking, if anything. I wrote it over a whole year, but in many ways the novel felt like it just poured out over a couple of weeks, I was having such enormous fun writing it. Time was distorted more than a TARDIS caught in a washing machine. Conversely, what was fun about writing it?
Hunt: Everything...but I scored some particular guilty joy from sneaking SF themes into what was admittedly a fantasy book. My pet dislike is the cultural Balkanism practiced by the literary establishment (including Sci-Fi Fandom encircled within its own little high-powered laser fence), and anything I can to do to subvert elitism, well, I count that as work well done. The one thing that readers seemed to have focused in on with particular relish was my steammen race, mechanical ‘creatures of the metal’ that have more morality and spirituality than your typical Jackelian yeomen (the kingdom has a basically humanist, godless church). More human than human, to quote the old Tyrell Corporation slogan.

I also enjoyed sneaking in some of my own pet interests and peeves into the wider weave of The Court of the Air’s plot – writing political cartoons in the style of Hogarth and Rowlandson; having a royal family held hostage and only brought out for stoning by the republicans; creating an 18th century-style surveillance state run by transaction engines (computers); parliamentarians settling tedious matters of order in the House by beating each senseless with heavy staffs, and generally sticking a libertarian boot into the flabby underside of the dictatorial state. What was the UK reaction to the novel like?
Hunt: Outstanding and far more than I had hoped. In commercial terms The Court of the Air was Tesco’s best-selling fantasy novel that wasn’t Terry Pratchett (oh, the irony). In mainstream literary terms, the novel got glowing write-ups in The Times, The Independent, The Guardian, Time Out, SFX, Deathray and the like. Going to genre cons as a guest and meeting my own favourite SFF authors and having them say they loved the book was definitely the thing that meant the most, though. You also run SFCrowsnest, an extremely popular news and reviews site. Can you tell us more about that? How time-intensive is that?
Hunt: Since I deployed a proper content management system, I spend less than a Saturday a month keeping the wheels turning on the bus (PHP coding, mainly). It’s a distinctly volunteer-driven beast, with about 50 regular contributors of book and film reviews, comment pieces and articles – everybody from talented SFF authors like Ken MacLeod, Joe Abercrombie and L.E. Modesitt, to US-based uber-fans like Mark Leeper and Frank Ochieng, as well as our erstwhile editor, stout Somerset cider-quaffing lad Geoff Willmetts. There’s some seriously good individuals involved, and so to the likes of reviewer and critic Pauline Morgan who was SFcrowsnest’s official judge on this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Awards--and who had to read fifty five novels in a few months to get to the shortlist (and will be doing the same for the 2009 awards next year)--we salute thee.

My own story is that I had the incredible dumb luck of being in on the ground floor of the internet revolution, having been a pre-web SysOp on Steve Job’s AppleWorld BBS system, whose resounding failure I’m sure I helped contribute to in so many ways. Despite having totally mastered HyperCard, I failed to realize I could get nearly as rich as Bill Gates by peddling smutty .jpgs or online gambling, then totally missed catching the next bus to insane hypertextual wealth by failing to create,,, or any of the others web sites that came whizzing by my Mac SE’s wallet-sized screen.

My sole lasting legacy to the Net is, its highly financially unprofitable fourteen-year history of bringing science fiction and fantasy to the web and its 800,000 users and 45 million hits a month. That and the fact that I’m fairly sure I invented search engine keyword stuffing, prompting AltaVista to get very angry in the early days of the Internet. I may also have had something to do with prototype spam, but it really didn’t seem so evil in those prehistoric days, honest. Sadly, this interview has just made me realize that I am in fact the Chuck Batowski of the science fiction and fantasy world. What are you currently working on?
Hunt: Well, on the back of the success of the first book, HarperCollins have just extended the original three book deal they won in the London auction to a six book deal--all to be set in my Jackelian universe. My second novel, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, has just come out in hardback in the UK (it’ll be splashing state-side June 2009 from Tor). The third novel in the series, The Rise of the Iron Moon, is completed now and will be coming out May 2009 in the UK, and I’m currently a busy little beaver bashing out the next three novels of the six-book deal.

I’m about fifty percent through my fourth Jackelian book, The Fires of Jago. That title is a working one, though, so will no doubt change. The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, which is the next book that US readers are going to be able to get their hands on, focuses on one of the minor characters from the first novel--Professor Amelia Harsh--and her obsession, which is finding the blueprint to a lost utopian civilization. Unfortunately for her, winning the keys to the perfect pacifist society proves a lot more deadly than she has anticipated. And rightly so, as it transpires.

The second novel’s got a deadly u-boat voyage, jungles filled with dinosaurs, an insane steamman safari guide, talking lizard men, beautiful female mercenaries, and a face-changing Scarlet Pimpernel-like character to boot (my firmest apologies to Baroness Emmuska Orczy). Fantasy? Certainly. Pulp? Oh yeah. Steampunk? Well, this probably ain’t your grandfather’s steampunk, but in the immortal words of a certain mild-mannered police station janitor that used to grace the cels of Hong Kong Phooey… Could be!


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