Molly Templar lives in Middlesteel, the capital of the kingdom of Jackels. She's a workhouse girl in a world that resmbles Victorian England but also differs in many respects. The workhouse want to be rid of Molly as she's old enough to fend for herself, but she can't seem to hold down a job.
Oliver Brooks is, ostensibly, better off. He lives in a large house with his uncle and goes to school. But Oliver's movements are restricted as he's a registered boy. He is part Fey having spent 4 years in the Feymist, survived, and somehow kept his sanity. Except that he can't remember any of it.
Things are not right in the kingdom. Revolution is in the air and it's impossible to judge who is on whose side. The King is a sick man, but has no power anyway, having had his arms symbolically chopped off to stop him 'raising his arms against his own kingdom'. A kind of communist government is in charge now, or trying to be. Watching over all is a mysterious, almost mythical, group known as The Court of the Air who observe and spy from airships in the sky.
Molly's life is suddenly turned upside down when a masacre takes place at her new place of work - a brothel. She survives and runs for the workhouse only to find that everyone there is also dead. Realising that the killer was after her, she goes on the run.
Oliver's existance takes a similar turn, only this time it's his uncle and members of the household who are killed. He's rescued by Harry Stave, a mysterious spy type who helps Oliver escape and goes on the run with him.
Clearly someone or some group is after both Molly and Oliver, but why? What is this strange affinity Molly seems to have with machines? Is Oliver's feyblood the reason someone wants him dead? Both youngsters have a very long journey ahead and many shocking discoveries to make before any sense can be made of the bizarre and dangerous situation.
I have to say that that short synopsis doesn't really cover this book. It's been a long time since I read anything quite as complicated, plotwise... and also complicated in its world building. It was 'challenging', there's no other word for it. And I'll be honest I was at page 200 before I really decided that 'yes' I would carry on to the end. Oddly, I discovered that both my daughters had had this one from the library: my eldest had given up after about 100 pages, my youngest had finished it but found it wanting. I understand. It was almost *too* complicated. I sometimes wondered if pieces of history or places had been added just for the sake of keeping the reader on their toes.
I'm also going to say that I didn't think the characters of Molly and Oliver were fleshed out enough. They weren't two-dimensional exactly, but neither were they rounded individuals that I felt I really knew by the end of the book. I had more empathy with a race of people called steammen, who were machines with souls, and a very real and sympathetic race. Much more interesting I felt than the two main characters.
All that said, this really is a stunning book and I wish I could put my finger on why, as it's a far from a perfect piece of work. I think I was overwhelmed by the concept. Yes, the world building is confusing at times... I often struggled to remember who was loyal to whom, why someone was doing what they were doing - even what the heck was going on in some instances! But goodness me what a world Stephen Hunt has invented. It's dark, dangerous and mysterious... there are underground cities, closed cities - the city of the steammen in the mountains was amazing. And all of it powered by a very strange and imaginative technolgy of machines. And let's face it, it could easily be my own fault that I was, at times, confused. My memory isn't what it was and I sometimes find that if I can't read a book as fast as I would like I don't always remember the small detail.
There are four books in the 'Jackelian' series at the moment with book five coming out in July. I'll be getting book two, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, for my Kindle because I'm so intrigued by this world that I want to read more. I gather book two is not actually about Molly and Oliver anyway but about a minor character, Professor Amelia Harsh, going on an expedition to find the lost city of Camlantis. I have to read it so The Court of the Air clearly made quite an impression on me. In point of fact I rather like it when I love a book despite its imperfections. :-) Lastly, I don't know whether this book could be described as 'steampunk'... if it is then I think I want to read more so if anyone has any suggestions for other titles, do leave a comment.