Court of the Air is, first of all, an impressive piece of work. I have always admired writers who can tackle complicated politics, because I have no head for those. (I know, and me going into postcolonial theory, way to screw myself over, eh?) We have something of a constitutional monarchy in Jackals, a country in which the king and the aristocracy has had very little power and is held in place only for the public to have a scapegoat and to jeer at. This democracy of sorts has competition with the communist-esque Carlists, which believe in pure equality and everyone work in tandem towards the same goal. (Good luck with that.)
This is a world which has its own geography, and several thousand years of history behind it that still echoes across its present time. I have always loved stories that stretched across ages, so I was quite happily ensconced in the world history of this book.
There are, of course, real-world parallels, which are slightly problematic. The Cassarabians are demonized since they use human women to breed biological monsters with. Clearly derived from a Middle-East that's so often Orientalized (and some of these elements show in the book), I wasn't really sure what to think about this, especially when a Cassarabian brings in his wolf-like hunters to attack one of the protagonists, and our intrepid hero sees that the wolf has human eyes, the blue eyes of a girl. "OFFS," I thought to myself (but not in acronyms).
The Steammen were also interesting. Aside from the consistent use of masculine pronouns to describe what appears to be a gender-neuter society (which annoyed me mightily!) they are interestingly portrayed as both mystical and mechanical, with an entire culture based around machine parts. I'm not sure what the real-world parallel is, but they struck me as a condensation of several mysticism-based religions/cultures - reading the Gear-gi-ju cogs, for example, and the way they speak, as well as the belief in souls and the rituals they have.
Despite what annoyances I have, I liked the Steam Kingdom and the concepts around Steammen culture. I'm so glad there's no "what makes a man a man and a robot a robot" post-humanist tension in here; the Steammen have their own culture and history stretching back thousands of years, too. And "we are notes in the same symphony," said by Slowstack, is perhaps one of my most favourite lines ever.
Then we have the antagonists from beyond whose names I cannot recall now and will not even try to spell, but definitely bring forth echoes of Mayan culture. Did they have to be evil? Don't know. Were they? Oh yes. And of course the good guys are white, or easily coded so? Yeah. (Whine as much as you like, Oliver Brooks and Molly Templar are not exactly "ethnic-sounding" names, unless you think white is some Ethnic Other, rather than default.)
So, evil Other-rized threat to the world, exotic Orientalized Other nation which does questionable things with human beings, and mystical Other who are allies.
We don't have Bingo though.
Because on the flip side, Jackals and Quartershift are no paragons of Great Western Civilization, either. The Court of the Air, for example, hires shifty-ass people and have no qualms about spying on people just to keep an eye on things. Who watches the watchers, indeed. Quartershift - have no idea what's going on there, but they overthrew their monarchy and things can't be all that great if people keep throwing themselves over that great wall to get into Jackals, killing themselves in due process. And Jackals, oh Jackals, land of brave souls who sing in the face of death - the government of Jackals cuts off the arms of their kings, for chrissakes. For symbolism. So, as much as Prince Alpheus is kind of a whiny crybaby, who the fuck can blame him? (I liked him, towards the end. I wish Captain Flare had had the chance to tell him the truth.)
Jackals is the by-now-typical Victorian-esque society - industrialization everywhere, alongside the regular ills such as poverty, recession, people getting lost in the crowds, people finding it easy to abuse others using what authourity they have. And from it, we are given Molly Templar, orphan, biding her time for the day she can vote, sold into prostitution, thrown into a chaos where her life is at stake. I liked how she could find help rather than constantly being betrayed.
She, too, has mystical, special powers, but it never shows up to be the one trait that makes her who she is, which is pretty great. I really liked Molly Templar as a character, and related to her quite a bit - she's considered a dreamer, she loves to read, she's a shifter and can't hold down a job because she wants something more in line with what she likes to do. I liked how she still has it in her to be kind to people even after all the shit she's been through.
It's pretty sad to say this, but I also found it worthy of admiration how Stephen Hunt gave us a compelling reason to fear for Molly's life without ever dangling the threat of rape as being the Worst Thing Ever. Way too often, the most threatening elements that a female character faces always contains some sexual element, so it's great to see a female character whose foremost threat isn't some danger to her virtue. It's pretty fucked up when this is a good thing and noteworthy when it should be something that I can take for granted, but I wanted to throw this out there.
Perspective bounces around between two and a half major characters - Molly Templar, Oliver Brooks and Prince Alpheus & crew. Oliver Brooks' development is also interesting, because he goes from a boy to a young man. I noticed immediately when the text started referring to him as a young man, and I found it a bit jarring because I didn't think he'd actually done anything that changed him so significantly. He's decently written, although I didn't find his arc as compelling as Molly's. However, he is the passive defence, and I liked him for that. I liked his shaky relationship with Harry Stave, which could have turned out so much worse, and his relationship with the Whisperer interestingly complex, being a special mix of fear and sympathy, disgust and compassion, which at the end finishes with a tenuous sort of friendship. I'm not quite sure how I feel about the way he turned out at the end. I'll probably have to give the book another go sometime (preferably a paperback version) to find out.
Through Oliver, the Whisperer finds an outlet and expression, and the Whisperer is quite the character - he's an evil little shit, seriously, but obviously a product of his environment; a world which treats ugly people as hideously as Jackals does its fey citizens will of course produce a rapist fuck who takes delight in messing with other people. Kyriarchy, people! Kyriarchy fucks people up! But he's still compelling, and I really like how he doesn't degenerate down into self-pity; he's pissed off; he's angry; he's got the power to take it out on people, and fuck if you want to rehabilitate him, he's just gonna go off on his own. I also found it interesting, admirable even, that even for all the shit he's been put through, he decides that Jackals is still the best place for him, and he refuses to take up the Observer's offer to go into the feymist curtain and renounce his humanity for the chance of a better life. It seemed a bit misguided to me, but his integrity hurts no one, and quite the opposite, comes to the aid of the Jackalians. (I feel for him somewhat the same way I feel for Selim of Slumdog Millionaire, who is similarly antagonistic yet has some admirable qualities.) I hope he and Oliver stayed friends.
So, for an Eurocentric story with an Euro-centered basis and European-derived ideals in an Europe-inspired geography and blah blah blah, it's a great story! I liked it a lot, even though I didn't understand at least a third of what was going on. I kind of wish there was a romance involved, because I am a sap like that, but it's not necessary and I'm sure fandom will take care of that. I like it much better than Jay Lake's Mainspring, which I'm reading right now. So one of the three Other-ized realms is evil and being exploited; it's still its own power, and is a threat precisely because trying to harness it (the way First World nations exploit Third World countries) will Lead To Great Disaster (as it should, heh). The other two Other-ized realms appear to be powerful entities in their own right, with little or no need for another culture to tell them what to do or how to behave.
It's not postcolonial by any means, hell no, but neither is it colonial. So this steampunk postcolonialist gives it a Yay.