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Jack Cloudie: A Novel (Jackelian World) Hardcover – August 20, 2013
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From Publishers Weekly
In the swashbuckling fifth steampunk-inspired fantasy in Hunt's Jackelian series (after Secrets of the Fire Sea), Jack Keats is caught red-handed trying to break into Lords Bank. He faces death at the hands of the Jackelian middle-court until he is saved by the might of the Royal Aerostatical Navy—which just means he'll be cannon fodder in the ongoing war against the Cassarabian infidels. Jack becomes a transaction engine operator on the Iron Partridge, the RAN's ramshackle, unloved prototype aerostat. Getting the ship to fly is the first order of business for a crew made up of misfits, convicts, and drunkards, and their mission, to penetrate hostile territory to spy on the Cassarabians new airships, is so risky as to be suicidal. Hunt combines elements of fantasy, genetic manipulation, and a large dash of Patrick O'Brien to form a wonderfully satisfying tale of adventure. Agent: John Jarrold. (Aug.)
Set in the same world as the author’s popular The Court of the Air (2007) and its sequels, but otherwise mostly unrelated to them, this is a rousing steampunk adventure in which two men, a young Jackelian small-time thief and a Cassarabian ex-slave, are thrust into an air war between the two nations. Although they are fighting on opposing sides, their experiences are similar (the story alternates between their points of view), and soon we begin to understand that the real enemies aren’t our two heroes, but the forces that are pitting them against each other. Hunt’s Victorian-style steampunk world is very well realized; he doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining its unusual technologies and cultures, preferring simply to show them in action and let us figure out what they are and how they work (the same way that, in a western, nobody slows down the story to explain what a horse is or how a rifle works). Steampunk fans should devour this one. --David Pitt
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It is set mostly in and above the ancient and ruthlessly theocratic Cassarabian empire, which oppresses much of the world. Opposing that empire are two forces - the Jackelian empire (Great Britain more or less, and more or less the good guys), and what appears to be a vicious religious cult on the verge of taking over the Cassarabian empire and then the world. Tragically, the cult has chosen to seek power through the same means of oppression that their goals ought to cause them to fight.
The Cassarabian empire has incredibly capable "womb magic" - secret genetic science and technology - that allows them to produce strange creatures and radically modify human beings (often for purposes of torture). The empire deliberately chooses to turn slave women into womb machines to gestate their creatures, in horribly torturous conditions - even though a moment's reflection by the reader should make it obvious that they should have the capability to create mindless womb machines for that purpose.
So the empire is essentially evil to the core. Which makes it doubly tragic that much of the action occurs in the name of thwarting the conspiracy to overthrow that empire, and installing the "rightful" emperor as apparently the lesser of evils.
Since this is an adventure tale, it is forgivable that secondary characters are somewhat cartoonish - exaggerated in an attempt to make them interesting without giving them much actual depth. But the development of two central characters - Jack and Omar - leaves a lot to be desired.
Jack starts out fairly interesting, with solid motivations driving his bad choices. But for the rest of the book he is mostly driven by forces beyond his control. The one time he shows true initiative, takes a risk and saves everyone, he is whipped bloody in punishment - and it seems to break him. Barely resenting that injustice, he submits to the system and is eventually rewarded by being driven by circumstances to success and power. He barely even uses his vaunted technical skills - odd for the main character of a steam punk novel. Ultimately, he is mostly shoved out of his central position by another character that doesn't grow in any interesting way, but takes over the central role.
Omar is somewhat uninteresting, as - even with the reader's insight into his thoughts - he appears embedded in his culture, unable to ever break its bonds on his mind, despite the mental agony it creates for him. He does evolve from a slave mentality - but unfortunately only to adopt the righteousness of his brutally oppressive society and his new role as a successful and powerful defender of that society.
The most interesting and least adequately explored character is that of Omar's doomed love interest. (He loses her no less than 4 times through the story, each time arguably due to his cultural blindness.) In part this was of necessity, to keep secret the twist around which the story ultimately turns. But it says a lot that she ultimately takes her own life rather than submit to Omar's "love" for her.
I'll probably read more in this series, but mainly because it is an interesting setting, not because I'm hoping to see more of any of the characters.