"Jack Cloudie" is the 5th instalment in Hunt's Jackelian far future sort-of-steampunk sequence, and I found it one of the most enjoyable to date, a straightforward adventure epic with plenty of derring do which reminded me of Rider Haggard or (The Lost World
) Conan Doyle crossed with CS Forrester's "Hornblower"
If you haven't read the previous volumes - The Court of the Air
, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves
, The Rise of the Iron Moon
and Secrets of the Fire Sea
- then a bit of background may help understand "Jack Cloudie". The time is thousands of years from now, at least one Ice Age having passed since our day, and the world is divided between states that both resemble, and differ from, our own. The most notable differences are in technology, with electricity having become dangerous and hard to control. Instead of computers, vast steam-driven "transaction engines" - sort of super Babbage machines - carry out computations, and sentient versions of them run in the "steammen", intelligent automatons who have their own "Free State".
Within this setting, Hunt's central focus is the Kingdom of Jackals, a distorted version of late 18th/ early 19th century England (not Britain) - a land of sturdy yeomen (and unspeakable slums) guarded against knavish foreign plots by its fleet of airships, which are manned by the "Jack Cloudies" of the title. There is a conscious echo of the John Bull self assurance of that age, the Jackelians viewing foreigners with suspicion, lauding Jackals as the home of democracy, and dwelling on the virtues of good honest beef.
This world gives Hunt a lot of scope for exploring different themes. Originally, Jackals was watched over and guarded by the mysterious "Court" of the first book, but that is gone now. In the last book there was an excursion to a distant island kingdom, threatened by an enemy from its past. In earlier volumes the world itself was under alien threat and there was even space and time travel. Those elements perhaps felt slightly grafted on to the basic theme. However, in "Jack Cloudie" things are calmer and less epic, and I think the book is all the better for that. The "calmness" is relative - the book features an aerial war between the southern empire of Casarabia (think sand, camels, court intrigue) and Jackals. Casarabia is ruled by the Sultan Eternal and practices a different kind of science from Jackals, its "womb mages" being masters of what we would call genetic engineering. Hitherto, the Sultan has not been able to field an airship fleet, giving Jackals a permanent military edge. Now, however, things have been evened up, and the Kingdom faces a deadly threat. A couple of Jackalian spies are therefore sent in an airship recovered from the breaker's yard, with a crew of jailbirds, to try and restore the status quo.
At the same time, Casarabia itself is beset by internal power struggles, not unconnected with the rise of the new technology. As these two strands come together, Hunt builds up to a revelation that shows there is real moral complexity to what is going on. Nobody emerges with much credit, with the survival of Jackals dependent, in the end, on the perpetuation of truly distasteful - one might even say evil practices by the womb mages. But would the alternative be even worse?
In short, this instalment is not only fun, but thought provoking and a fine addition to the sequence, and I hope that next year's The Deep Dark
is as good.
All that said, I do have to say something about the cover. The previous books in this series have been graced by beautiful line drawings reflecting both the spirit of adventure in the stories and the pseudo Victorian setting. Now, we are presented with what seems like a stock image from the steam punk clip art disc, indistinguishable from every other book in the genre. It is ghastly, and doesn't come near near to doing this book justice. I do hope the publishers come to their senses on this and return to the previous style. (I also hope they publish a hardback edition, as it's next to impossible to keep the paperback in good condition as a book to keep - but maybe that's me being fussy). Anyway, don't be put off by the cover, do buy and read this book.